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Solving the Refugee Crisis One Algorithm at a Time

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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What if tech-savvy millennials could help solve the world's refugee crisis? How would they approach it?

In modest offices on the 29th floor of a lower Manhattan high-rise, Daniel Lizio-Katzen, recently showed me a migration wizard. It's a software program that his company, Migreat, developed to help economic migrants and is now adapting to help refugees. The wizard detects the IP address of the user and then communicates in one of 12 different languages. The interface couldn't be more user-friendly: Based on answers to a list of questions, it produces a personalized migration checklist and advice, stripped of jargon, about national laws.

This goes far beyond what governments or nongovernmental organizations offer, and not just because of the multilingual platform. If you want to reach Iranian immigrants, it helps to know that they prefer to use the Viber app for mobile messaging, while Syrians tend to use WhatsApp and Russians use the St. Petersburg-based social network VK.

Migreat can tailor content accordingly. Vetted service providers, such as immigration lawyers, pay for access to those who want to pay for advice, and their services are reviewed by users. Think Kayak or Skyscanner meets TripAdvisor.

It takes a particularly intrepid kind of entrepreneur to be bullish on this market after the terrorist attacks in Paris, but techies see the refugee crisis as more of a logistics problem than an existential one.

The market for the service Migreat is building is potentially enormous. In its autumn economic forecast, the European Commission predicted an influx of 3 million migrants by the end of 2017. Globally it is of course bigger still. Some 232 million people around the world are currently living in a country other than where they were born, an increase of 65 percent since 1990.

Migreat's business has been growing, with 1.7 million unique users in September, up from 400,000 in January; about 10 percent of those go on to use one of the paid services offered by providers, who pay a subscription fee to be on the platform. The company, whose services go live in the U.S. next year, also provides articles of interest for 60 different local communities on both practical and cultural subjects; the communities supply their own feedback and content.

Helping Poles or Hungarians in London is one thing. Finding useful solutions to Europe's refugee crisis is quite another. In October, Migreat joined a hackathon in London organized by technology journalist and media entrepreneur Mike Butcher, who created the nonprofit group Techfugees to encourage tech entrepreneurs to get working on the migration crisis.

Europe's Refugee Crisis

In the first 48 hours of launching, Techfugees' Facebook group and Twitter account were barraged with interest. Since then, Migreat's tech staff of twentysomethings has been adapting its algorithms to take into account laws on refugees and asylum-seekers and will launch its refugee advisory product next month. Speaking on Wednesday at a London conference of tech teams working on refugee software, Hassan, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, recounted his arduous journey to England, through 10 countries over three months. "People are skeptical about refugees, especially after Paris," the former English teacher acknowledges in impeccable English. Technology, he said, saved his life when the nine-meter dinghy he took from Turkey to Lesbos sank. Holding his phone above the water, he texted a friend in the U.S. to alert the Turkish coast guard. The group was rescued.

Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other apps feature in his story and those of many other refugees who escaped danger, reunited with family or friends and have tried to build new lives in their host countries. He says Syrians use Facebook widely, not only to find and help each other but also to help identify terrorists, recording the names of those who have fought with Islamic State. Techies looking at the refugee crisis quickly zoned in on the two most urgent needs outside of food and shelter: connectivity and information. 

Migrants tend to get stuck in squalid camps or turn over their life savings to unscrupulous traffickers because they lack information. Laws and their application can change quickly and are often not well-advertised. Those attending the hackathons think software can help. "If we can save them their last $10,000 because they don't have to pay someone to smuggle them to Greece, then that's something," says Migreat's CEO Lizio-Katzen.

The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the world's adult population will have a mobile phone with internet access by 2020. A UNHCR official addressing the techies Wednesday told the group that the first two questions refugees ask when arriving at a new destination are: "Where can I charge my mobile phone?" and "Is there Wi-Fi?"

What if, for example, the Syrian asylum-seeker in a Lebanese camp knew how to apply to be settled in France from his camp? And what if, once he arrived in a host country, he knew exactly how to go about finding accommodation, a sim card and connections with fellow Syrian immigrants?

Crowdfunding initiatives and apps for migrants are increasingly common. Berlin-based entrepreneur Paula Schwartz set up Startup Boat to help provide refugees information on where they can find food, accommodation, transport and medical care and to give migrants a platform for communicating with each other. Techfugees raised a modest sum to install four Wi-Fi hotspots in the Calais jungle. Vodafone has developed digital classrooms, a large black box with wheels that packs tablets with educational software, modem, laptop and projector so that schooling can take place in African camps.

Initiatives like Techfugees haven't yet incubated a coherent, scaled-up solution to the migration crisis and probably won't given the size and complexity of the problem. But they reflect the gulf between the analog thinking of European politicians -- with their focus on walls, border-controls, quotas and visas -- and the digital mindset of the Easyjet generation who, even after Paris, view migrants more as a source of opportunity than a threat. They are well worth listening to. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net