Commemorating World Refugee Day: How Technology Helps Achieve Sustainable Development for the World’s Refugees

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Mr. Alexander Aleinikoff, the Deputy High Commissioner for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Every year on June 20th, the United Nations, along with countries and communities worldwide, mark World Refugee Day to raise awareness and support for the world’s 34 million forcibly displaced and stateless people. In support, MSN is running a special ‘Causes’ campaign on the plight of refugees.

This year, World Refugee Day takes place during Rio+20, the major UN summit in Brazil that brings together world leaders from a wide range of international organizations, governments, NGOs and the private sector to further debate on reducing global poverty, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection and sustainable development. UNHCR, led by High Commissioner António Guterres, is in Rio to advocate for the rights and interests of the world’s refugees and other displaced persons in the summit’s deliberations and outcomes.

Microsoft is a longstanding partner to UNHCR, working with us around the world to ensure a vital role for technology in the delivery humanitarian relief and longer-term support. Through programs that support education and training, we provide refugees with skills for productive, sustainable livelihoods and employment for the near and longer term.

UNHCR’s biggest challenge today is the number of simultaneous emergencies which have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Over the past two years, we have provided life-saving assistance to refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and the Horn of Africa; responded to displacement caused by the "Arab Spring" in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; and, most recently, are responding to emergencies in Mali, South Sudan and Syria.

In addition UNHCR continues to provide assistance and protection in what we call ‘protracted refugee situations’- these are situations in which persons have been displaced for many years and have no immediate prospects for either returning home or gaining a permanent residence in another country. In UNHCR's refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, more than 450,000 refugees--primarily from Somalia--have awaited a durable solution to their situations for years. Dadaab is now the home of more than 5,000 refugees born to women who themselves were born in Dadaab.

Innovative technology and partnering with private sector companies such as Microsoft plays an important role both in emergencies and in long-standing refugee situations. Computer literacy and distance learning provide obvious advantages to refugees. We are also now exploring mobile technology solutions. Mobile phone networks, which are rapidly growing even in remote areas, permit refugees to connect with family and to access needed services more efficiently.

Our partnership with Microsoft has helped us innovate as an organization. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, a group of Microsoft volunteers helped develop a mobile registration and ID card system for refugees. This experience led to what is now known as proGres, UNHCR’s global system for tracking refugee populations, needs and services, which is used in more than 250 locations in 82 countries. We have used it to register nearly 5 million people.

Another example is the Community Technology Access (CTA) Program that we initiated with Microsoft’s support in 2008. The aim of the CTA is to enhance the education and livelihoods of refugees. Through careful planning and innovative thinking, we’ve worked with Microsoft and other partners to make sure the CTA centers are able to operate in the challenging physical environments in which many refugee camps are located. When located off power grids, CTA centers are supplied with solar power and run on Flexcell solar panels as a reliable and cost-effective energy source. The centers also use ultra-low-power computers, which use five times less power than the average desktop. By the end of 2012, there will be a total of 49 CTA centers in 23 different countries giving formal and non-formal education, connectivity and skills access training to more than 20,000 refugees around the world.

The forced displacement of people from their homes is not a new problem for the world. But by adopting modern technology, we can find new ways of responding that lead to sustainable solutions for refugees.

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