Reconnecting South Sudanese Families
Christopher Mikkelsen, co-founder of Refugees United (REFUNITE), reflects on the dire humanitarian crisis in South Sudan and shares observations from his recent mission to Juba in South Sudan.
I had expected a hair-dryer’s blast when the doors opened. Last I was here, the temperature crept past 44 degrees and didn’t so much stifle you as kick you like a horse’s hoof. Today, however, a pleasant 32 degrees awaited me, as did a fairly functional immigration process. So far so good…
In Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, REFUNITE with partners Kenya Red Cross Society, Ericsson and Safaricom, have helped thousands of South Sudanese in search of missing family onto our family tracing platform. In Kampala, Uganda, alongside partners UNHCR, InterAid and the Office of the Prime Minister, we have helped other thousands. To correspond with these efforts, it’s important to “connect the dots,” to reach the family members who may be back in South Sudan, or perhaps have escaped elsewhere.
The last time I visited South Sudan was in February 2011 with my brother David Mikkelsen. Right when the South Sudanese people had voted to become the world’s newest nation. Back then a palpable tension had taken hold of the capital Juba, as young soldiers roamed the streets with a newfound authority they didn’t quite know where to put. Aggressive shouts clearing the road ahead of frightened eyes.
A similar split was present this time around, although the demarcation zone was now dividing the relative quiet of the city from the bottled anger between government and rebels, Dinka and Nuer, waiting just beyond the bush.
I had arrived to meet with our partners Ericsson and Zain, to take further a partnership we announced in Barcelona during the Mobile World Congress in support of displaced people from South Sudan.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of refugees are pouring across South Sudan’s borders and into Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Many of them have lost contact with family members during the escape. This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced: people who are refugees within their own country.
With our partners, we disseminate large-scale SMS campaigns to geo-targeted locations with a high density of refugees, providing information about how to reach REFUNITE free of charge, and how to be assisted in the search for missing loved ones.
With Zain, we’re exploring the opportunity to integrate REFUNITE’S family tracing services into their system, providing their subscriber base with direct access to our family-finding network. By dialing a simple short code, displaced people in search of missing loved ones can submit and obtain information through a simple text message, USSD or by calling our toll-free line. This is akin to our partnerships with operators in many other countries, helping us close a loop of information between displaced people through the one thing they all have in common: a mobile phone.
Through these technologies, coupled with on-ground teams working in refugee camps, we’ve helped more than 300,000 displaced people onto our systems, and helped many families reconnect across vast distances and many years apart.
With South Sudan suffering from so many crises at once, the loss of contact to loved ones is something we can remedy today. While visiting a Persons of Concern camp run by the UN Refugee Agency on the outskirts of Juba, I had the opportunity to address a crowd of some 500 refugees.
As always, one of my key questions are – “how many here have a phone?” and as always, even in these circumstances of extreme poverty, at least 70% shot up a hand holding a phone. Compounded with the sheer number who is looking for missing loved, this digital bridge enables us to cross the analogue world of refugee camps via simple information proactively shared.
And as REFUNITE’S connectivity flourishes and the network effect of hundreds of thousands of displaced people sharing information across our platform takes hold, we’re reconnecting families between disconnected places in this world. One byte at a time…
Photos by Ericsson.
Posted on Tuesday, July 29th 2014