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Tech can help address refugee crisis beyond Ukraine

By Amira Halperin | China Daily | Updated: 2022-03-19 08:14
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Ukrainian refugees arrive at a crisis center on Monday in Brussels, Belgium. [Photo/Agencies]

The year 2020 was a milestone in the political history of the United Kingdom. Following a long period of turmoil, the UK withdrew from the European Union, dramatically changing the fabric of European society, in general, and British society, in particular.

The migration issue has been dominating the political and media discourse in the UK-it was the focal point of the Brexit discourse. The media played a key role in the UK's withdrawal from the EU, with the large number of refugees who entered Europe creating a division between and within the EU countries.

In 2015, millions of refugees fled from violent conflicts, which erupted in the Middle East, to Europe in the hope of rebuilding their lives. Amid the large influx of refugees into Europe, many social media platforms started disseminating fake news, anti-refugee sentiments, and hate speech against the helpless, fleeing people. These voices also penetrated offline arenas, protesting against what they perceived as a major threat to the social stability in their countries.

In contrast, however, thousands of people across Europe marched in solidarity with the refugees, and welcomed them.

Although 2020 was a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted the lives of people across the world, thanks to the lockdowns and other strict anti-pandemic measures, it was also the year which saw a significant increase in the number of people fleeing their countries to escape the horrors of war and violence. COVID-19 only exacerbated the refugees' problems and risks.

By the end of 2020, about 82.4 million people were displaced, 35 million of whom were children, according to 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview. And more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine in the past three weeks, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees' Operational Data Portal.

Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have forced millions of people to flee home and live as refugees, transforming the Middle East into a region with the world's fastest-growing forcibly displaced population. Syria accounts for the largest number of forcibly displaced people globally-more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011 with another 6.7 million people being internally displaced.

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) during these turbulent times became critically important, even more so during the pandemic. In fact, the post-pandemic world will be increasingly dependent on ICT, as it could prove to be a lifeline for the refugees.

Millions of refugees rely on smartphones and apps; they use them as survival tools to escape conflicts, to navigate border crossings, to receive and send warnings about attacks in real time, and to disseminate photographic evidence from conflict zones. The use of ICT is vital for refugees in all stages of their migration. After arriving in a new country, they use technology and apps for multiple reasons; most importantly, to receive settlement services.

The pandemic has been a game changer in this context. As global activities in almost every field have shifted from offline to online, there is an immediate need to use ICT to support refugees.

For instance, sharing information on the pandemic via Facebook in local languages could make the difference between life and death for refugees who don't watch the news and cannot understand the language most widely spoken in the host country.

This applies to all refugees, whether they are fleeing Middle East countries or Ukraine. Social media and mobile phones have also become crucial in fighting against misinformation, disinformation and fake news. Unlike in the past, refugees today can better tell their stories because of the emergence of new media.

Technological solutions are major pillars of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with the mobile phone industry helping find digital solutions to humanitarian issues.

Soon after the refugee crisis in Ukraine erupted, tech companies started playing an active role in helping the fleeing people. For example, Google donated a huge amount to the refugees so they could seek digital solutions to problems, including getting evacuation and other necessary information.

Indeed, the solutions are rooted in using technology and in education-education for refugees and education about refugees. As the education of millions of children forced to flee their home has come to a halt, assistance providers should make special efforts to ensure the children can continue their education, because it will improve their chances of integrating in society and help maintain social stability.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who fought for education, said:"One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world."

I couldn't agree more.

The author is an assistant professor of international communication studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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