Techfugees: Hacking the Refugee Crisis

People around the globe are being forced from their homes at unprecedented numbers. At most recent count, the United Nations Refugee Agency counts 65.6 million displaced individuals worldwide. 20 more are displaced every minute. Food shortages, economic default, and political instability have forced 10 percent of the Venezuelan population out of the country over the past decade. Nearly 700,000 Syrians have been displaced since the beginning of 2018, adding to the 12.5 million displaced since the beginning of the Syrian War. Since 2013, the conflict in South Sudan has forced four million people from their homes.  

And, as if these unprecedented numbers weren’t startling enough on their own, hate speech and hate crimes have spiked across Europe and the United States. Xenophobic biases have resulted in increased restrictions on legal immigration, such as the Trump administration’s 45,000 cap on refugees — an all-time low for the 43-year-old program.

The need for effective action is obviously imperative, but how do we begin to tackle this global emergency?

Enter Techfugees — the politically independent non-profit committed to empowering displaced people with technological resources by forging global partnerships between non-governmental organizations and tech entrepreneurs. Techfugees has amassed over 15,000 members of the tech community since its founding in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down.

“We’re empowering citizens to take the topic of displacement and create technology [for it],” says Josephine Goube, a social entrepreneur, and the CEO of Techfugees. “We invite them to no longer see refugees as a problem — as something to fear, as a burden to the community — but to actually create more inclusive societies.”

Techfugees approaches the task of catalyzing technological solutions for the refugee crisis through a three-pronged method, starting with conferences, hackathons, and other events aimed at connecting the tech industry with advocacy groups — collaborations which can produce the creative, innovative solutions necessary to address the challenges of this international crisis.

“We ask ourselves, ‘What’s the real challenge of these refugees in this place? Can we fix it with technology? What already exists? How do we tweak it in a way that serves the refugees and keeps them safe and not more vulnerable?’ And then we work out how to make it sustainable,” Goube explains.

While much of Techfugees’ work addresses the logistical challenges that refugees face, the organization also engages with the ideological challenges that run parallel to these more practical obstacles. Goube and her team counteract the negative stereotypes of refugees and displaced people by humanizing them through the sharing of their stories on social platforms, and by inviting them to collaborate with entrepreneurs at Techfugees’ events.

“[Displaced people] come in to be seen not as victims, and not as heroes, but as human beings — and we treat them as such. They’re seen as doers, empowered,” Goube says. “We take a photo, post it on social media, and say, ‘Here were the engineers this weekend creating apps with the refugees.’ They don’t have a stigma.”

The final component is keeping people animated and inspired, giving them the support network they need to put their ideas into action. Goube credits Mike Butcher, the founder of Techfugees, with creating this productive, optimistic atmosphere.

“He’s a superstar,” Goube says. “He’s found the approach to get people’s attention — an approach that’s not just giving a donation. It’s about changing actively every day,” she shares. “He pushed open a door that everybody wanted to be open.”

In 2016, Goube was working as the director of strategic partnerships at Migreat, an online platform providing visa application resources to refugees, when Butcher invited her to a Techfugees event, where she was immediately intrigued by his approach. He asked her to come on board as CEO, but Goube felt she needed to spend some time on the ground before stepping into the role. She then spent time traveling to cities and refugee camps around the world to speak and get a better feel for how to address the challenges displaced people face.

“It was really good to get their view. When you put a label like ‘refugee’ onto 65 million people (the population of France), you’re going to get different kinds of people and stories,” she reflects.

Since joining Techfugees, Goube has sought to inspire empathy for uniquely difficult situations of displaced people: the legal obstacles they must overcome, the trauma they experience, and the psychological toll that they bear.  

“You’re completely in limbo,” she states. “It’s a part of the life that’s been taken away from you. The whole experience of a refugee is not what you think. It’s not just the boat and one minute, an hour, three hours — it’s entire lifetimes. It affects generation upon generation because it’s passed on. And we need to face that.”

It’s hard not to be struck by Goube’s sensitivity to the challenges and indignities endured by displaced people, and it’s no wonder she has this passion — she grew up with a front row seat to one of the most infamous refugee situations in Europe.

Growing up in Normandy, France, outside the port city of Calais, just 20 miles across the water from England, she watched migrants flocking to her city for nearly 20 years. She would notice them living throughout town in between their attempts to stow away to the UK on trains and ferries. Up until recently, many lived in tents and makeshift shelters on unoccupied land. These camps were often overcrowded and lacked basic needs, such as running water.

“Growing up, there was this degrading context for people who just wanted to have better lives,” Goube remembers.

Around 7,300 migrants were living in these communities in 2016 when French authorities forcibly cleared the camps and construction began on a 13-foot wall meant to keep migrants from being able to enter the UK. This highly controversial British-funded barrier was dubbed “The Great Wall of Calais.”

“I’m ashamed they’ve put a physical wall in the city,” Goube disappointedly admits. “It’s like seeing the Berlin Wall being built.”

While some might be defeated by the demoralizing persistence of prejudice, Goube has channeled her outrage into her advocacy work. She’s encouraged by the incredible progress she’s seen over the past few years. Techfugees has produced several promising initiatives including Chatterbox, a language tutoring program that employs displaced people who teach their native languages to online and in-person classrooms, giving refugees and asylum seekers an outlet for their talents, as well as a source of income. Black Sheep is another Techfugees initiative that helps migrants to France obtain legal protection documents, housing, and work, and also helps these individuals create genuine connections with their new communities.

Goube says that while there are still hurdles to acceptance in some communities, she’s seen more positive outcomes than negative. “I never lose faith in humanity. Never,” she says boldly.

Setting her sights on yet another new project, she’s currently looking to secure funding for Basefugees, an online open source platform which would facilitate collaboration between users. “Basefugees is our big dream: a platform that could automate our work and make it more clever,” Goube explains.

This resource would allow a non-profit refugee aid organization to submit problems (like a logistical challenge, or a language barrier between refugees and health care workers) to various tech companies who would be able to pitch their proposals in response. The site would enable Techfugees to match problems with solutions at a much faster pace.

But until then, Goube and the Techfugees team plan to continue their fight to find effective solutions to the refugee crisis while reframing the narrative around immigration and nationhood. Goube says she hopes that in 50 years the acceptance of immigrants will be a point of pride rather than a burden.

“Immigrants come to places where there are opportunities. They don’t come to your country if it’s not interesting,” Goube explains. “To welcome refugees is an honor. They are human beings that need to be sheltered from death.”

Clara Malley is an Editorial and Community Intern for The Fullest based in NYC. Find her at @claramalley on Instagram.

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