Techfugees in London

by Andy Mayer
Posted on 10 October 2015
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Last week I attended the inaugural Techfugees conference in London, where around 300 people from the tech and startup communities were joined by concerned citizens to discuss what can be done to help Europe's refugee crisis. After recently being asked to run a similar event in Sheffield, I figured it was a good idea to get to London to find out what's happening there.

The day featured 16 sessions, each about 15 minutes long, which gave a whistle stop tour of the issues and moving insights into the plight of refugees and some of the organisations working with them.

I've written down some of my highlights and top facts hoping they're useful and informative to a wider audience:

Refugees in Calais

Sadaf Ahmed of the Musafir Collective started the day. The Collective aims to provide sustainable, participatory aid to people in the refugee camps across Europe. The session was a big eye opener to the issues on our doorstep in Calais and across the continent:

  • Estimates are there's a staggering 4,500 migrants crammed into the area known as the Calais "Jungle". Last year there was a couple of thousand, so the camp's growing at an alarming rate.
  • Half of Syria's pre-war population has either been killed or migrated elsewhere.
  • Europe is currently accommodating only one fifth of the refugees. Lebanon has taken the majority so far, a country the size of Greater London.
  • Many refugees in Calais don't speak French and perceive England as a much more hospitable destination than France.
  • Heating and cooking are massive issues in the camp, as there's no power. People try to cook by burning scavenged wood or using dangerous gas canisters.
  • The only power is provided by an electricity generator which is very popular for charging mobile phones, but communication in and out of the camp is problematic.
  • There are currently only 44 toilets for 4,500 people, so raw sewage is getting out of control.
  • There's no education, employment or prospects in the camp. This makes the refugees desperate to leave, hence they readily risk their lives trying to escape to England, climbing aboard lorries or Eurotunnel trains, sometimes falling off and breaking bones or dying in accidents en route.
  • The camp isn't recognised by the UN as an official refugee camp and therefore can't receive any aid from relief agencies.

Smuggling networks

Next up was Adam Rodriques from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI). He spoke about their work mapping out the people smuggling networks. So far they have a database of over 2,100 migrant journeys. Adam explained that:

  • Mapping is all about helping the migrants to be better informed and their travel safer.
  • Smugglers take advantage of refugee's lack of knowledge, making false promises and asking for extortionate amounts of money.
  • GI estimates migrant smuggling in Europe alone is worth US$2.5 billion a year.
  • Smugglers create the market to some degree through false rumours, threats and coercion.
  • Mapping out the network puts power and knowledge back into the hands of refugees who have access to smart phones, but not to critical information that could save them time, money, and ultimately their lives.
  • Smugglers offer all sort of incentives. For example, in Libya, smugglers offer a 10% discount if you can get 9 people to pay, then you get to travel for free. If you helm a boat, then you also get to travel for free.
  • Smugglers often take all the money a refugee has, and will threaten the traveller's family with rape and murder.
  • Better informed refugees can negotiate harder, which in turn hurts the smugglers (eg. When Hungary announced it was closing its border, the refugees didn't know, even though it was public knowledge).

The Urban Refugee Experience

Sonio Ben Ali from Urban Refugees spoke about their mission to improve the lives of urban refugees living in developing countries. The main points were:

  • 64% of refugees live in cities in developing countries; not camps.
  • Refugees spend on average a staggering 17 years in a camp from arriving to eventually settling somewhere. Can you even imagine arriving in a camp with your family and a baby, and leaving when your child is 17 years old?
  • Technology can help in many ways, such as connecting refugees dispersed across one city. It gives them a voice, but providing education and employment opportunities is also key.
  • Any tech solutions need to: work offline, work on non-smart phones, be low cost, and take care of legal issues.

Hack Humanity

One of my highlights was an inspiring talk by Klaus Bravenboer about workshops and hackathons in which Hack Humanity has been involved and has used design thinking to develop various solutions for refugees. Klaus kicked off with this inspired quote from R. Buckminster Fuller:

One thing that definitely needs changing is that refugees without visas are currently unable to travel by air due to “Carriers Liability", an EU directive making carriers financially liable for all costs related to passengers who are not ultimately granted asylum at their destination. Although budget flights on the same routes are cheap and easy to come by, refugees must instead pay thousands of euros to smugglers to undertake the dangerous sea crossing, risking their lives in the process. So effectively, refugees must “break into Europe through the window", then apply for asylum. Their only option is to trust their lives to illegal people traffickers.

According to the UNHCR, almost 3,000 people have drowned this year trying to get across the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe.

One potential solution is which through crowd sourced funding, and with the backing of private and corporate donors, is hoping to solve this issue by building insurance into the price of the air tickets. By collaborating with carriers, governments and the UNHCR, it hopes to make safe routes into the EU a reality.

Other projects

On the day there were many other great projects mentioned, such as:

  • Refugees on Rails – a refugee code school in Berlin.
  • Start up boat – people from startups in Germany, Greece and South Africa coming together to tackle the refugee crisis using a startup approach to design a world that is positively influenced by migration in 5 years time.
  • First Contact – provides essential information for arrival spots in Europe.
  • Migreat – started three years ago to provide information – such as visa-related support – to refugees in 15 languages,
  • Hash Tag Charity – The world's only online community platform connecting social entrepreneurs and tech professionals to work together on high-impact technology projects.
  • Project Temp Home – An initiative to provide short-term accommodation for refugees.
  • Refugee Maps – a project using geospatial knowledge to help support the humanitarian network for the refugee crisis in Europe.
  • Medshr – helps doctors discuss and share medical issues related to the refugee crisis.
  • – helps humanitarian organizations through smarter use of technology.
  • DHN – Digital Humanitarian Network is a community of volunteer & technical networks.
  • Peace Geeks – a global non-profit that uses technology to promote peace and human rights.
  • Cliqstart – an app that makes it easy to take real action on issues that matter to you, and challenge your friends to do the same.
  • – free German language learning for refugees.
  • busuu – language learning for 55 million users. Free Arabic (with a login code).
  • icoon – picture dictionary for refugees.
  • RefugeeAid app – a mobile app dedicated to helping refugees find homes, work, community and support.


During the day notes were taken on Hack Pad, which you can reference via the following links:

An article on Sky News and the accompanying news report (which originally aired on Saturday 3 October), provides further information about the conference and the London hackathon.

What you can do

I really hope you find the above notes and links useful and they prompt you to think how you could better respond to the refugee crisis. I am still working to organise a Sheffield-based hackathon to respond to the crisis. If you are interested in getting involved in any way then please register your details and I'll endeavour to get back to you. Also, if you want to show your public support, or ask any questions then please post in the comments below.

Posted on 10 October 2015 - By Andy Mayer
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