RIO DE JANEIRO — DoNotPay, an app dubbed “the world’s first robot lawyer” by its developer, Joshua Browder, has been helping refugees in the United States and Canada to complete immigration applications.
There’s also the International Organization for Migration’s MigApp, which fills in the blanks on topics ranging from money transfer to visa rules around the world. Signpost, a portfolio of online tools for people in conflict-affected settings, has reached one million people in Greece, Italy, Jordan and El Salvador; RefAid, which connects refugees with services, is used by more than 400 aid organizations, from the Red Cross to Save the Children; and aptly named Techfugees invites individuals and organizations to share tech solutions, including ways to fight xenophobia online.
Digital solutions are quickly filling the information vacuum plaguing the thousands of people around the world who have been displaced.
Migrants often land in places they know little or nothing about. Some rely on whatever they’re told by the unreliable coyotes who smuggle them across borders. Even highly skilled newcomers can be rendered helpless by institutions, laws and practices that differ from those in their home country. Local bureaucracies may impose thorny requirements involving the securing and updating of certain documents. Language barriers can affect everything from obtaining food and lodging to penetrating legal mazes.
Signpost, launched in 2015, is a collaboration between the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps. According to its developers, one of its tools, Refugee.info, delivers reliable information in five languages and reaches 70 percent of some 50,0000 refugees in Greece.
Having a cellphone connection isn’t just about practical steps like accessing information and locating ourselves — “it’s about reinforcing our dignity,” as one Venezuelan refugee on the Brazil border told us in an interview in April.
Critics caution against “technophobia,” or undue optimism about these platforms. In Roraima, a state on the Brazil-Venezuela border, researchers at our nonprofit think tank, the Igarapé Institute, met migrants who had sold their phones to finance their journeys. When they did have phones, they were usually simple, with minimal data storage, and often shared.
While some refugee camps and shelters provide dedicated wi-fi spaces, only a handful of migrants can gain access to them at once. Pacaraima, the town in Roraima where most Venezuelan migrants land, has had a 4G connection for about a year, but it is not enough to meet demand.
New technologies often entail risks. Apps that collect user data and fail to secure it can make newcomers vulnerable to changes in government policies; for instance, if such data is used to track down and deport migrants or to expose them to xenophobic hackers. New technologies can also be used to spread misinformation, directing migrants into the hands of human traffickers and slave labor bosses.
In Brazil, the voluntary relocation program for migrants from Venezuela has had to cope with fake news disseminated about the destination cities offered by the program. In rare cases, local people have used free internet access and social media to organize xenophobic attacks against migrants. (More than four million Venezuelans have left their country during its current crisis; in Boa Vista and Pacaraima alone, 6,000 Venezuelans are residing in United Nations refugee camps.)
To make the new tech platforms more secure, sponsors can take steps to collect data only at aggregate levels and to ensure the integrity and safety of this data. Fake news can be controlled by watchdogging information uploaded to a site.
After conducting interviews and focus groups with migrants, Igarapé went back to the drawing board. The result is a free phone app, called OKA, that does not require wi-fi access once it is downloaded. (See the video below.)
The tool, funded initially by the international charity Porticus, is available in Portuguese, Spanish and French and will soon be available in English. It offers information on Brazil’s federal public services — spanning housing, schools, health care, social and legal assistance, jobs and disaster response and preparedness —and more local services in Rio de Janeiro and in Boa Vista, Roraima.
Laís Clemente Pereira of Igarapé produced the video describing OKA, the organization’s new phone app for migrants and refugees flowing into Brazil.
Data is not collected at the individual level; instead, the app looks at usage patterns, with the goal of influencing and improving migration policies in Brazil and the region. Efforts are underway to expand its local information to other parts of Brazil and elsewhere in South America.
Apps like this, though hardly a panacea, can be a powerful helpmate. As one young Venezuelan woman who recently crossed the border into Boa Vista told us, “These technologies won’t solve all our problems, but if they are built with our participation, they can help point the way toward some of the solutions, and they give us greater autonomy.”
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Adriana Erthal Abdenur is coordinator for international peace and security at Instituto Igarapé, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. Lycia Brasil is a researcher there.