At the start of his treacherous journey across the Aegean Sea in a rubber dinghy with 62 other refugees, Hassan called a friend in New York. His plan was to keep her on the line in case anything went wrong. It did. The boat sprang a leak and sank. As Hassan went overboard, he managed to hold his phone above the waves so he could tell his friend to alert the Turkish coast guard. He used WhatsApp to send her his location. He was rescued 45 minutes later.
Hassan, a 28-year-old English teacher fleeing the Syrian civil war, set out again the next morning, but only after checking an app called SeaConditions. It didn’t matter: Masked vigilantes attacked his boat, and Hassan had to swim for eight hours to a Greek island. Once safe, he bought a new, dry smartphone.
The current refugee crisis differs from every mass migration before it, not just in size and scope—3 million people are expected to arrive in Europe this year—but because these travelers are so connected. Vast numbers of them own smartphones (even if they don’t have a passport); Wi-Fi has become as vital as food and water. That’s crucial to understand as traditional aid organizations struggle to help. For the aid to be truly effective, these agencies must begin funding and emulating the smaller, nimbler startups that recognize what’s really needed here: mobile solutions, for a crisis literally on the move.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the biggest force for this kind of relief, did shift policies in 2014, when it decided to focus more on delivering aid to wherever refugees happen to be and less on establishing camps. It was a good step, but it’s not the full answer—migrants move quickly and often leave aid workers behind. As Hassan, who’s now seeking asylum in London (and asked that we not use his last name), says of the international NGOs: “You see their logos, but you don’t see them.”
The UN seems to realize this. For the past three years, an innovation program—yes, one does exist—has been surveying the landscape for tech-centric approaches. It wasn’t long before the group identified hackathons as one of the most promising product-development strategies available. At gatherings across Europe, young coders are dreaming up ingenious solutions to address practical needs. These are the networks that deserve more attention and more funding.
When you hear about refugees using apps to make their way across Europe, it’s often Facebook that saves the day. Google Maps and Google Translate help, and WhatsApp and Viber are vital tools, but Facebook functions as the default network. Important as it’s been, though, Facebook is a mess of chatter: disorganized, incomplete, and missing of-the-moment, on-the-ground input from host nations. As global aid institutions look to tech for solutions, Facebook is a fine place to start, but it’s not at all optimized for efficiency or comprehensiveness.
The real innovators are working for a new crop of grassroots nonprofits, and they’re the ones who need the resources of, say, the UN and the Red Cross. The best known so far, Germany’s Refugees Welcome, connects asylum seekers with households that have a spare room.
But accommodation isn’t enough; a more lasting solution must include integration. Enter 29-year-old Carlos Arbeláez. When he fled to Paris from Colombia four years ago, he spent months sleeping on the street until a woman offered to take him in. That prompted Arbeláez to join the French aid organization Singa, where he helped create Comme à la Maison, or CALM, a website that matches refugees and hosts according to common interests like music, sports, and food. His next project, Waya, is a map-based platform that will clarify local asylum laws while directing people to places where they can find jobs, grab a bite, learn the local language, do laundry, practice yoga, even (in France at least) join a pétanque league.
Both of these projects share an origin story: They were born at hackathons. Not huge, Disrupt-style confabs, but rather smaller events with minimal resources. Traditional institutions should be backing networks that promote this kind of innovation—like Techfugees, which brings together NGOs and volunteer coders from all over Europe. (American programmers have been slower to contribute brainpower.) Better-equipped hackathons could yield all kinds of tools, not just services akin to Airbnb but apps that assist on the journey as well.
Humanitarian organizations are not irrelevant, of course. “Engineers and software developers don’t know how to drop tents out of transport planes,” says Techfugees founder Mike Butcher. “But they know how to leverage real-time data and social networks to create products that can change lives.” In other words, old and new must work together.
Not doing so won’t just fail refugees. For all the xenophobic sentiment metastasizing around Europe and America, there are millions of European citizens who are ready and even eager to offer their support, if only they knew how. That’s something these new aid projects are particularly good at: empowering people in their homes—far away from desks and bloated, sclerotic systems—to make a difference.
Julian Sancton (@jsancton) is a writer and editor based in New York.