Social innovation for refugees: a successful story

  • 14 Maggio 2015



Social innovation can be a breakthrough in the development of projects devoted to helping refugees. Until now, one of the most brilliant examples of what the implementation of business-like techniques can do to foster social work is the service provided by REFUNITE.

REFUNITE is a non-profit technology based organization founded more than five years ago by two Danish brothers, David and Christopher Mikkelsen, with the ambitious purpose of helping refugees all over the world to reconnect with their families and loved ones. An objective that has proved to be not only ambitious but also extremely successful, given that over the years REFUNITE has helped thousands of asylum seekers, internally displaced people and all kinds of people fleeing from dire conditions in their home country to get in touch with those they love and have been separated from because of wars, persecutions and hardships.

When the project started in 2010, the basic idea was to set up a mobile phone system that would allow people to get connected by merely providing very simple information about himself/herself. In fact, it has became much more. Today, any refugee can make an attempt to find his/her loved ones through a much wider set of tools: through a simple SMS from any mobile phone (no need to own a smartphone), a call to a REFUNITE operator, a USSD search or by just shuffling the online REFUNITE database (containing more than 405,000 profiles). Due to the delicate situation of many refugees, the person using the service can register with very little – but often meaningful – information that he/she feels comfortable disclosing. From the date and place of birth to scars and little skin imperfections; from one’s favorite food to his/her most peculiar habits.

Over the years, REFUNITE’s experience has been further strengthened thanks to the collaboration with several international organizations working with refugees and IDPs (such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the International Rescue Committee, IRC) and technology companies (among others: Ericsson, Zain Group and Asiacell). In March 2015, REFUNITE started, together with the IRC, Zain Group and Ericsson, a pilot program called “The Family Reconnection Project”, which aims to reconnect separated families in South Sudan in the aftermath of the civil war and subsequent massive displacement. The partners wish to replicate the program in five other camps across Africa and in the Middle East before the end of 2015.