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How tech can bring dignity to refugees in humanitarian crises

Iris scanning technology in use in Jordan. UNHCR via YouTube

The term “refugee camp” is often misleading. Many of the facilities housing some of the world’s 65m people fleeing war and disasters resemble small cities rather than comfortable campgrounds. With tents and caravans crammed together in urban-style grids that sometimes stretch for miles, aid organisations and governments commonly use satellite imagery and other surveillance technologies to control movement in and out of these sprawling installations.

While new technologies are now being used more frequently in the management of humanitarian crises, data infringements of digital records to monitor refugees have also created new risks. Collecting data on marginalised groups in conflict zones is known to be a risky undertaking if it falls into the wrong hands – yet the development of digital databases on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has recently been linked to further discrimination and persecution.

In humanitarian crises, technological innovations do not easily translate into ethical advances and can at times resemble an Orwellian tale of tight control over undesired populations. This serves as another unwelcome reminder to refugees of what they have often lost: their homes, livelihoods, families, freedom of movement – and their privacy.

While all these factors are of serious concern, aid agencies have also shown that technology can be fused with ethical ideas to move towards a more flexible and human-centred emergency relief system. We believe that there is plenty of potential to use technology in ways that provide more dignity to refugees.

Choice and autonomy

Given the remoteness of many refugee camps in places such as Uganda, Bangladesh and Kenya, technology can help to address some of the enormous issues facing the world’s refugees. It is already being used to improve refugees’ access to finance, to support their individual autonomy and offer them new choices.

While providing blankets and food inside a camp may have its uses in some situations, such in-kind handouts often create relationships of dependency while confining people to the camps themselves. In Jordan, a partnership between humanitarian organisations and financial institutions uses eye-scanning technology to allow refugees to receive cash aid outside the camps. This helps to cut overhead costs and reduce the role of financial intermediaries, which means that more money can go to refugees.

Eye-scanning equipment has been placed at many local banks and supermarkets throughout Jordan, where refugees can collect the cash hand-outs – which average between $US 125-150 per month – without being confined to the camps. This approach – which uses blockchain technology to manage aid payments provided by the UN’s World Food Program – allows refugees to move more freely than before and maintain contact with relatives in other places. This helps to cement social and economic support networks that are important for individual well-being and long-term resilience.

Other uses of technology in humanitarian crises often revolve around mobile phones. In facilities such as Kenya’s Dadaab and Jordan’s Zaatari camps, this offers support to refugees gaining knowledge to start businesses, communicating with customers and suppliers, and arranging payments.

Technology has also been used in camps such as Azraq in Jordan and Kakuma in Kenya to provide online higher education with support from universities such as Geneva and Princeton.

3-D printing is also being explored to help refugees access important supplies. The Jordanian organisation Refugee Open Ware is trying to bring important medical equipment, including prosthetic limbs, to injured survivors of the Syrian civil war. The aim is to create an open source movement around 3-D printing prosthetics for refugees and to help bring innovation into the humanitarian sector.

Humanitarian relief is not just about helping people survive in hostile settlements – it is also about re-establishing hope and self-respect in those who have suffered due to conflict, economic upheaval or natural disaster. Applied responsibly, technology can give humanitarian ethical ideals new life. In the process, it can disrupt the aid system by bringing new ideas, approaches and organisations into the sector to empower refugees and rebuild their livelihoods.

Read more: AI will be used by humanitarian organisations – this could deepen neocolonial tendencies

The novelty of these examples is not due to technological innovation alone – which can also serve more sinister purposes, whether in refugee camps or the most modern of cities, given the different ways in which technology and data can reinforce conscious or unconscious biases. Instead, we should seek to harness the good that technology can bring by creatively fusing new technologies with ethics to bring ideals of human dignity, participation and autonomy back to some of the world’s most disenfranchised people.

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