March 21, 2017

Mobile learning week: 3 projects mobilizing technology to empower refugees

By Theadora Mills (@TheadoraMills)

In Ritsona refugee camp in Greece, a Syrian refugee types in the Arabic words for “phone credit” into a free translation app on his smart phone. Instantly, the correct pronunciation in Greek is read out to him. After a few times practicing these new words, he visits the nearest store to top up his prepaid mobile phone to make a quick call back home to Aleppo.

Mobile devices and free language learning apps such as Duolingo, Babbel and others are not just for tourists on a weekend holiday abroad, but are an essential and potentially life-saving technology for some 21 million refugees and 65 million displaced who are out of their home countries, often without the ability to communicate fluently in their new homes.

Connected devices are not a luxury, but they are possibly the most valuable possession of a migrant family on the move. As the UNHCR’s report Connecting Refugees states, “A connected device is a lifeline and a critical tool for self-empowerment.”

On the occasion of mobile learning week, ITU talked to 3 organizations employing mobile education solutions for refugees. Whether it is donated devices and free language apps, mobile WiFi hotspots, or Instant Network Schools, education for refugees is being transformed by connected devices and online services and information.

Donated devices and free language-learning apps

Techfugees is a social enterprise mobilising the international tech community to respond to the refugee situation and has produced technological solutions to help refugees across Europe, the Middle East and around the world.

“Techfugees organises hackathons with refugees, techies and NGOs working [in] the field to look at solving the current challenges of the refugee situation. We use tech because it scales, and use the format of tech events to co-create and co-design simple hacks of technology,” said Joséphine Goube, CEO of Techfugees. “We have been able to leverage a large network of techies thanks to our founder, Mike Butcher, and our constitution into independent chapters across the globe who source local challenges, and incubate the best solutions. We owe our success to the dear need of refugees today, and to the fact the refugees themselves do use mobile technology.”

After one of their successful Techfugees Hackathons in London, the idea for GeeCycle.org was born. It is a platform for everyday people to donate their old mobile devices to a refugee in need. Using these devices, refugees have an instant translation device in their pockets and a way to access important information while on the move.

Mobile WiFi and legal rights education

The Refugee Info Bus is an innovative project providing free Internet access to refugees in camps across Europe. It started in Calais in France, and according to co-founder Rowan Farrell, it is now on its way to Greece offering free legal and human rights education to refugees and facilitating refugee collaborative journalism along the way.

As their website says: “Our mobile WiFi for refugees will work anywhere. In camps and on the road. Access to the Internet is one of the most powerful tools for a displaced person. It is a free Whatsapp call home, it is Google Translate, downloadable maps, legal rights information in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Tigrinya, Amharic. When you have no state, no home and an unknown future, it is a way to tell the whole world.”

Connected schools for refugee education

In Sub-Saharan Africa, millions of refugee students are struggling to catch up with their education, as 18 million people are currently displaced. The Instant Network School Programme (INS), a partnership between UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation, is an example of mobile technologies to enhance educational opportunities for refugees in emergencies.

“UNHCR aims, through creative partnerships and smart investments, to ensure that all refugees, and the communities that host them, are connected to mobile networks and the Internet in order to leverage these technologies for protection, education, health, self-reliance, community empowerment and durable solutions,” says Alan Vernon, Project Lead for Connectivity for Refugees, UNHCR.

“As refugee access to connectivity improves, online education and mobile-learning apps will be important means for enhancing refugee access to education at all levels.”

The partnership is leveraging tablet computers and mobile networks to bring online education to students in refugee camps. Since the initial pilot in 2014, the programme has been taken up by 31 centres in four countries in the region: Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“When refugees have reliable access to the Internet and mobile communications, it enhances their well-being as it enables to stay in touch with their families and communities and make use of the Internet for information, education and livelihoods,” says Vernon. “The challenge is to ensure that access to mobile and Internet connectivity is available and affordable for refugees.”

Note: UNHCR, UNESCO and ITU have jointly organized the Mobile Learning Week Policy Forum on March 24. More information can be found here.


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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Mobile learning week: 3 projects mobilizing technology to empower refugees

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