Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Refugees will now have the possibility to initiate searches for their loved ones scattered by conflict or disaster using a simple mobile phone. The service is anonymous, free and secure. It was launched as a pilot project in Uganda 3 September, and 500 users have already registered to use it in the first four days.
Danish NGO Refugees United, which designed a web-based family tracing platform for refugees, has partnered with Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), mobile phone maker Ericsson, and MTN, Africa’s largest mobile phone operator, to make the tracing service available to refugees with access to a mobile phone.
Christopher Mikkelsen, who founded and now runs Refugees United with his brother David, told GenevaLunch that while the web-based platform is used by about 4,000 refugees to search for missing family members, the availability of internet access in Africa is low, but mobile phone penetration is almost 50 percent. He says that 75-80 percent of refugees have access to a mobile phone in Africa and can use the service. The project promises to go global at the end of the month.
“For the first time, refugees themselves are drawn into the equation to trace family members”, he says, paving the way for “the bottom of the pyramid” to take charge of their lives. The platform is open, and users decide just how much information they wish to share. Typically, traces are made based on nicknames, birthmarks or other distinguishing features that only a family member would recognize.
The International Red Cross (ICRC) runs the world’s most comprehensive tracing agency for people separated by conflict or disaster, and has made use of new technologies to bring people together, as well, especially in the recent earthquake in Haiti. The difference is that ICRC acts as an intermediary between split families, while the Refugees United project enables users themselves to define their search.