Think Local Link Global: Peace Geeks & the Mobile App for Refugees

unacto1Empowering refugee’s must be at the centre of the global strategy of addressing the current crisis. The importance of this has been reemphasized by those at the international level and is underway in local-projects such as Peace Geeks based here in Vancouver. Together, international and grass-roots initiatives have sought to both raise awareness and improve the lives of refugee’s worldwide.

At the end of 2013 there were over 50 million refugees, the highest since WWII. This number does not take into account internally displaced persons, the stateless or asylum seekers. Refugees spend an average of 17 years in exile, which is often a time of limbo and uncertainty. The psychological and social distress of displacement is incomparable and can undermine the ability of an individual to live a secure and meaningful life. The refugee crisis is one of the greatest obstacles to peace and security and the universal enjoyment of human rights today.

refugee is someone, “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” This definition is derived from The1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the primary document outlining the rights of refugees and the legal obligations of state parties to the Convention.

Refugee rights, which ought to be considered in conjunction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, seek to protect those in vulnerable situations outside of their home country. Rights outlined in the 1951 Convention include: the right to housing, the right to education, the right to work, the right to be issued identity and travel cards, amongst many others. The UNHCR acts as the primary ‘guardian” over this document. However, states play a major large role in service provision and rights guarantees. Presently 86% of refugees are located in the developing world. This, coupled with the immense number of refugees, means that camps often suffer from a severe lack of resources. Accordingly, both the quality of these services may not be sufficient presenting a major obstacle to the enjoyment of the basic rights outlined above.

Last month, TED featured Chief Communications & Spokesperson Melissa Fleming of the UNHCR, who expressed this dilemma in “Let’s help refugees thrive, not just survive,” a video which has since been watched by close to 500,000 viewers(link). Fleming addresses the core challenges that face the UNHCR: ensuring that not only the basic necessities for survival are met, but that those in camps (and elsewhere) are able pursue the life path of which they desire. Continued education, adequate health care facilities, social services, communication technologies, all impact this capability. Exile can undermine such ambitions.

Canada’s current refugee resettlement admission target is 13,900 for 2014. However, resettlement represents only a fraction of the world’s refugee population and is not always desirable. Yet, beyond the economic, geographic and political obstacles of providing a safe space for refugees, Canadians are currently providing support in innovative ways.

In conjunction Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 7.39.32 PMwith the UNHCR, Vancouver NGO Peace Geeks has created a mobile application, which provides refugees with the most up-to date information on camp services. There are currently over 60 service providers in 420 spaces across Jordan. As such, navigating this terrain has proven both time consuming and frustrating. Since the Syrian crisis erupted, the number of refugees in the region has skyrocketed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and partners are currently assisting over 3 million people as a result of the violence in Syria ( Jordan is currently hosting many Syrian refugees, with an estimated 641, 915 people under UNHCR assistance. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan aids 81, 321 people of concern, of which the majority again are Syrians.

Ensuring that camp residents are aware of, and able to access services is critical to ensuring their rights are protected, and can have substantial implications for well-being. Reproductive and mental health support, education, gender-based violence services, amongst others are offered by many different providers. However, access due to knowledge limitations can mean that refugees may not be able to utilize what is available. Recognizing that a phone is often one of the few items refugees choose to take when fleeing, the new mobile application is both a practical and an especially innovative method to tackle this obstacle. Currently, Peace Geeks is working on incorporating a user input function into the app in order to respond to decisions that have occurred within the communities, such as service delivery. This empowerment method is an important tool to ensure that services replicate the needs of those living in the communities.

Volunteer based non-profit NGO, Peace Geeks “builds the technological, communications and management capacities of grassroots organizations working on the promotion of peace, accountability and human rights.” Since the organization’s founding three years ago, Peace Geeks has helped peace, accountability and human rights organization in countries across South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia establish themselves on the web in order to support their advocacy goals. Peace Geeks is an outstanding example of the potential of Vancouver to contribute to international issues, such as the refugee crisis. UNA looks forward to working with this organization in the future.

For more information on the application, see the Digital Humanitarian Network website: