nullRefugees Signing up for the Service
At the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
By MOLOUK Y. BA-ISA
Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and now Syria — violence in so many places in the Middle East has torn loved ones apart. Men and boys may be forced into hiding. Women and children run for their lives. Too often it’s impossible to go back to the place that once was home.
According to the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2010 the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide reached 43.7 million. This includes internally displaced people (IDP) and those who have crossed their national borders and become refugees. Every minute, eight people flee their homes to escape conflict or persecution. Famine also drives people to the desperate decision to abandon everything.
In 2005, David and Christopher Troensegaard Mikkelsen met Mansour, a young Afghan refugee. Mansour had reached safety in Copenhagen, but he was desperate to find his family. David and Christopher wanted to help but soon found out how hard it was to search for missing relatives. Since none of the family tracing programs used collaborative technology, a lot of time was spent filling out the same forms in different offices. This silo effect meant that information wasn’t shared and families weren’t being reunited.
“In a very short time we were able to see that the best way for us to bring people together was through technology,” said David Mikkelsen.
In 2008, the brothers launched Refugees United (www.refunite.org) as a Web-based anonymous and secure family search engine for displaced people. In 2010, the program went mobile, thanks to assistance from Ericsson. Refugees United created, maintains and updates the refugee database, while Ericsson provides the mobile application, technology and systems integration to enable the application in mobile networks. Through their operations at refugee settlements, the UNHCR helps people create profiles on the search engine. The search engine is available in 23 languages, including Arabic, and new languages are regularly becoming available.
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At the end of the interview, Mikkelsen became emotional. He spoke about the importance of family and how unimaginable it would be to be separated and searching for his own brother.
“There are millions of people on the Earth who can’t find their families. In this day and age that’s just not okay. Family is everything. We have the tools to eradicate this problem. Our dream is to work ourselves out of the work that we’re doing now and move on to other problems in the world of aid that could benefit from technology.”
Watch the Refugees United video at: http://vimeo.com/24767782.