The continent of Europe is at crisis point. Since April 2015 it has faced the largest refugee influx since the Second World War. The response of the European Union has been inadequate and piecemeal without a grander policy solution on how to deal with the crisis as a whole. Double the number of asylum applications were made to EU member states in 2015 than the year before. This arose from a perfect storm of conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan. With the rise of right wing parties across Europe and the anti-immigration policies inherent in such administrations, each nation has looked to take in as few asylum seekers as is possible. The unwillingness for any country to take the lead across the continent has shifted the problem as far east as the boarders of Syria itself. The increasingly authoritarian Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the geographical location of his country as a bargaining chip to obtain swifter integration into the European Union. Power games and obstinacy at the international level leave the proletariat wondering how they can possibly help in this complex crisis where, at its heart, there are millions of human beings suffering in limbo. It is at this point where the altruistic and entrepreneurial nature of the human spirit kicks in and people come up with ingenious solutions to problems that affect us all.
The similarities of the current crisis with the Second World War are brought starkly into focus with former Nazi concentration camps being used as centres of accommodation for fleeing migrants. The response of the technology and entrepreneurial community to this population density plight was, like the rest of Europe, leaden. The touch paper was lit however when a German couple and their friend founded Flüchtlinge Willkommen, known in the English speaking world as, of course, Refugees Welcome. More than just a hashtag, it is a true example of the shared economy in action, an Airbnb for migrants, matching refugees and asylum seekers with shared flats, foregoing the mass accommodation familiar to most people in their situation. They are guaranteed their own room. The founders Mareike Geiling and Jonas Kakoschke walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Inspired to set up the website after taking in a Malian refugee named Bakary in 2014, more than 300 people have thus far been housed in Germany, Austria and the UK. This number is likely to drastically increase with the concept being rolled out across continental Europe.
After the publication of the harrowing images of Alan Kurdi washed onto the shore of a beach in Turkey, a group of young UK tech industrialists set up the non-profit organisation Techfugees encouraging tech based solutions for the challenges presented by the crisis. Figure headed by the influential Mike Butcher, since its inception in September, it has crowdfunded WiFi for migrants in Calais, hosted its first two conferences in London (including one in Downing Street) and is now expanding into America and France. Ubiquitous internet access across Europe can make us complacent as to its usefulness. This effort by Techfugees means refugees can, in the words of Butcher: ‘find lost families, report human rights abuses and disrupt smugglers’. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has agreed to a similar approach, pledging to provide internet access to UN sanctioned camps. Other industry players such as Apple have taken a more hands off approach, attempting to do away with the problem by throwing money at it.
“Ubiquitous internet access across Europe can make us complacent as to its usefulness”
A hackathon in Paris over the weekend of the 12th of March organised by Techfugees demonstrated the impact individuals with skills can have on the lives of many. It has encouraged techies as well as former asylum seekers to develop solutions such as automatic text translators and websites to help refugees to find work. The limited time frame of the event puts pressure on the participants to work hard and collaborate to solve the particular projects they may be working on. A student of HEC Paris, a social enterprise centre said to France24 that the event was finally ‘allowing me to have an impact on the issue of the reception of refugees, which is close to my heart’.
Naturally technology is a double edged sword when it comes to the current crisis. Governments are hesitant to allow mass migration and therefore have instigated strict border controls. Last October, hundreds of thermal imaging cameras were installed at the channel tunnel, a measure paid for via collaboration between the British and French governments. Surveillance equipment such as sensors and satellites are in higher demand as border agencies heighten its security measures. As central governments attempt to harvest more data under the banner of ‘security’, it is hard to determine whether or not this information will be used to flush out potential asylum seekers or proactively prevent coordinated border crossing. Conversely, aid organisations such as the Migrant Offshore Aid Station are using drones across the Mediterranean sea to locate those in danger whilst attempting to cross. Technology has helped to make our world smaller and more interconnected. The morals of the implementation of such technology are as complex as the multifarious crisis itself. Though technology is neither inherently good nor bad in and of itself, it is comforting to know that there are those putting their skills to use, helping at least in a small way to alleviate at least some of the problems faced by those escaping unimaginable suffering from across the globe.