Refugee Text: Using technology to reach out to refugees

By Ciarán Duffy

Approximately 5 years into the conflict in Syria, and in the context of over 60 million displaced persons worldwide, one of the most fundamental humanitarian challenges remains unaddressed: the need to reach refugees with the regular, timely, accurate and actionable information they need to survive, protect their families and make decisions affecting their future.

“Giving vulnerable people the right information at the right time is a form   of empowerment. It enables people to make the decisions most appropriate for themselves, and their families, and can mean the difference between being a victim or a survivor.”

–     Jonathan Walter, Editor of the 2005 World Disasters Report.

Information is essential in order for refugees to know their rights, understand what services are available and how to access assistance. Yet information alone is often insufficient to empower refugees. Aid organisations need to ensure information is delivered through suitable mediums, that trust underpins information campaigns, and that opportunities for feedback are also available to refugees.

Existing methods of information dissemination within refugee camps and host communities range from flyers, word-of-mouth, mobile services, factsheets, household visits, television broadcasts, random encounters, and loudspeaker announcements. However, according to numerous reports and case studies, refugees feel they still need more information on key issues and that they do not have access to reliable, consistent sources of information. Gaps and weak dissemination mechanisms allow rumours to easily spread amongst the population, eroding trust and generating confusion.

The overall message from refugees, across the world, is that aid organisations should ‘diversify their communications approach and create a range of mechanisms to deliver information in a more neutral and egalitarian manner’.

Angel Garcia

Photo Credit: Angel Garcia

At Refugee Text, we’re using people-centred design methodologies to co-create a solution to this information problem with refugees, asylum seekers and humanitarian aid professionals across Europe. An interactive SMS service gives refugees a consistent, reliable source of up-to-date information – available 24/7, on-demand.

SMS is available anywhere there is mobile phone signal, meaning any refugee with a phone can find answers to their questions, regardless of data-plans, the type of phone they have or whether there is wi-fi signal.

The idea is simple, an organisation inputs information, which is then held in a customised database. Refugees who text the service are prompted to select their language, by responding to the automated text message. They can then navigate to the information relevant to them, by responding to simple text messages – much in the same way as an online ‘chat bot’ works. Whenever the information needs to be changed, the aid organisation can update the database online.

By putting this information into a centralised information point, organisations can ensure that refugees interacting with the service will receive the most up-to- date information. They can also push out important notices, when necessary.


With various reports citing phone ownership amongst refugees at over 80% worldwide, SMS gives organisations a direct communication channel to a large number of beneficiaries. It also gives refugees a voice to give feedback to the organisations working with them. This increases NGO and aid organisations’ understandings of risks and ability to adjust their assistance and activities in the regions where they are operational.

Gonzalo Hohr

Photo Credit: Gonzalo Hohr

SMS is a cheap, flexible and robust technology that is over 30 years old. Many in the corporate and marketing world are now turning to SMS for direct campaigns to customers, and with over 90% of text messages read within the first three minutes of receipt, it’s no surprise.

Since identifying the opportunity for an interactive SMS information service, within the international aid organisation domain, Refugee Text have researched, co-created and tested a variety of interactive SMS information services with refugees at the core of the design process throughout. One such information service takes information from legal experts working in Germany, Denmark and Sweden and provides refugees in Europe with personalised and clear information on how they can go about applying for asylum in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. This service is also available for free on Facebook Messenger. Currently, we are seeking a collaboration with some of the major aid organisations working to give refugees vital information.

However, with NGOs facing the largest humanitarian crises the world has seen, it is very difficult for innovative ideas, and new approaches to find a sure footing. With organisations’ resources stretched thinly, and no end to the crises in sight, we are working to bring together a cross-sectoral approach to tackling the issue; bringing together NGOs, start-ups, telecom networks and tech giants.

The team behind Refugee Text is Ciarán Duffy (Ireland), Kåre M.S. Salvåg (Norway) and Caroline Arvidsson (Sweden).

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.