Today, the world is marking World Refugee Day in honor of the 43 million refugees living across our planet. In honor of the millions of women, men and children who have been forced from their homes and had their future thrust into a state of uncertainty.
In reality, what we're recognising is the resilience of human nature, the undefeatable spirit of those who push through unimaginable terrors just for the chance to live. Not to conquer the world, not to build lavish lifestyles, but simply just to unpack their lives from tattered plastic bags into a footprint of dignity over which they can build a roof and settle in to live.
And dignity is the true shelter of any man, woman or child. Without it, you may build a world around any body, but the soul will not call it home. It takes the building blocks of self to create a structure that will support a life worth living.
Another cornerstone that supports a life worth living is family. Without knowledge about the health, safety and whereabouts of those you may have given life to, or who have given life to you, the desire to pursue a better existence diminishes until it disappears. For those hundreds of thousands of refugee families who have been separated, uncertain about the fate of family members, it is a race against time and a race towards hope.
The sole mission of Refugees United is to contribute to these two building blocks: Family and dignity. The refugee family tracing platform we operate currently helps more than 135.000 refugees in their quest to find missing loved ones - a number that grows by more than 500 every day. To the digital world this may not seem stunning - but consider that prior to the birth of the Refugees United family tracing service, a refugee agency carrying out family tracing typically had the capacity to open 750 cases - a year!
One of the key reasons Refugees United and partners are able to help so many are the technologies we employ. These technologies are actually fairly low-tech, yet high on the other key building block: dignity. Using SMS and other accessible platforms, we extend our services to even the most remote regions of the world, enabling us to reach, and include, most people.
When we set out to focus on refugee family tracing using mobile platforms available on most low-cost handsets, it was out of a wish for inclusion. Before Refugees United, refugee family tracing was a one-way affair: A refugee in search of missing loved ones would turn up at an office, be interviewed on personal details, and then his or her active participation in the process would come to an end. Notice would then be given to the refugee on whether or not the search had been successful. This process could take months and years.
Refugees United wanted to tap into the knowledge networks of refugees themselves in the quest to reconnect separated families. Through distributed teams created and managed with partners like Kenya Red Cross, hundreds of trained refugees function as touch-points inside refugee camps, assisting their community members in signing up, searching and reconnecting with missing loved ones using $20 mobile phones.
If you melt away the efficiencies and tech-approaches, you're left with something even more significant: dignity. Refugees United is trying to shift the traditional aid structure between deliverer and recipient, moving from a one-way monologue to a partnership dialogue between the persons in need and us. By bringing the refugees to the center of the conversation, allowing them to decide what information to share, when to share it and with whom to share it, they are in charge of their own situation when it comes to finding missing loved ones. The ability to make the choices that have an impact on your life is building block number one.
One of the most rewarding things Refugees United and partners encounter are the moments when a refugee is brought to understand that our support is not unconditional, that for us to be successful, they must participate, engage and interact. Their input is not only valued, it's needed. This moment carries immense importance because it becomes a partnership - not a handout. Is it always working? Nope. Is it flawless? Not even close, but it's a beginning. We teach, we educate, we learn.
This, we believe, is part of the future of aid: A move away from one-way relations to an empowerment and inclusion of our constituents. With the proliferation of technology comes the ability to access information. With access to information comes the ability to make more educated choices. This, in its simplest form, is empowerment.
These opportunities are only made possible via the concerted actions of a number of different agencies and actors. Without partners like the Kenya Red Cross, UNHCR, Refugee Consortium of Kenya, InterSOS and others, we would be nowhere. While technology has made huge inroads in the world of refugee assistance, technology is but an enabler. Technology is what makes collaborating and sharing easier, but it takes people and persistence to bring it to work. On the side of technology, it's because of the partnerships we enjoy with Ericsson, our main technology partner, Safaricom, Vodafone Egypt, MTN, Delta Partners and others, that we're together able to provide the platforms and communications to foster these collaborations.
Here's to the world's refugees. May you find home, may you find your family!
On behalf of the Refugees United Team,
David and Christopher Mikkelsen