Out of Isolation: How technology is supporting refugees

Guest post by Sajjad Malik, Chief Operational Solutions and Transition Section, UNHCR


Editor’s note: There are currently 43 million people displaced by war, conflict and human rights abuses around the world. The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – was established 60 years ago and currently deals with 36.4 million people of concern. Technology has enabled UNHCR to make progress in critical areas of communication, mapping and tracking, data collection, education and capacity building.

Sajjad Malik talks about his experiences working for UNHCR and the impact technology has had on his day to day work.


I started working for UNHCR 23 years ago when I was fresh out of civil engineering school. After working in Pakistan I headed to Somalia for what I thought would be a short assignment. It was a time when fax machines were the height of innovation. In DoloOdo at the border of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia we used to use a hand held loud speaker to make announcements. It was a 3 day drive just to get to the embassy to drop off or pick up a letter that had been delivered by diplomatic pouch!

Today, we use mobile phones to notify refugees about food distribution, and help them reconnect with their families. With support from companies like Microsoft and HP we set up Community Technology Access (CTA) centers that build skills and capacity and enable refugees to communicate with family back home. Last year Skype created a low-bandwidth version of their product for UNHCR to use for its staff in remote field locations.

1 Sherkole refugee settlement Uduk refugee


In the 16 years I spent in the deep field I also oversaw the physical planning of numerous camps throughout East Africa and the Great Lakes region. We often set up camps a safe distance from the boarder to make it easier for those fleeing to find us, and for us to find them. But in some cases we didn’t know the exact boundaries of natural reserves or wildlife migration routes. Accurate mapping could truly mean life or death.

Nowadays, UNHCR employs satellite imagery and GIS to plan, build, and manage camps, roads, water, healthcare and schools. We use GPS to track our distribution trucks and the spread of disease and health information systems, and use crowd sourced maps to engage the community of emergency responders.


Back in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, UNHCR was using ad hoc refugee registration systems. We used wristbands and tokens to help determine population numbers, and paper-based forms to gather family names and needs. Imagine using this for camps experiencing an influx of more than 200 thousand people!

Then Kosovo happened. In 1999 Microsoft helped us build, a mobile refugee registration system to respond to this crisis. Microsoft introduced us to the concept of a registration kit in-a-box, with a laptop, printer, and a fan to cool it. Now, we are working on solutions that collect data using mobile devices, and store information centrally in the cloud. Cloud-based solutions are key for an organization that needs to cost-effectively manage data across many locations around the world.


I oversee teams that manage emergency shelter response, as well as long-term solutions. As displacement becomes prolonged, we try to serve the population’s long-term needs. We help people to be productive citizens, so their human development does not stop. The CTA Program provides refugees with access to technology to help them stay connected to the world, to learn skills and become self-sufficient.

I can confidently say that we would not have been able to achieve much of what we have without innovative technology. June 20 is World Refugee Day. I’ve seen first-hand the look of desperation and fear on the faces of so many men, women, and children when they arrive in a camp; and tear-filled joy when they are told they can go back home. Technology has allowed us to do a better job, to allow those we work for to connect to the 21st century, to learn about the world and develop new skills. We now have the means to tell the story of those almost 43 million individuals who currently do not have a home to go to. You can be part of this year’s World Refugee Day. Please do 1 thing to help refugees and go to www.unhcr.org/do1thing or simply follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

1 family forced to flee is too many.


SajjadMalik_highresSajjad is responsible for overseeing UNHCR’s Operational Solutions and Transition Section at its Headquarters, including emergency shelter, livelihoods, environment, peace-building and reintegration in post-conflict situations, and innovative technology solutions Community Technology Access (CTA) Program for refugees and other displaced persons. During his 23 years with UNHCR, he served in the field in Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan and covered emergencies in the Great Lakes region, West Africa and Kosovo. In 2005-2008, he led the complex repatriation and reintegration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from camps in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Egypt, involving multiple land and air routes to remote and war ravaged areas of southern Sudan.

For more information, please visit http://unhcr.org/microsoft/ 

and for more stories on the UNHCR’s work with Microsoft please see our Local Impact Map stories such as UNHCR Council of Business Leaders Mission to Southern Africa Helps Refugees.

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