Better together

The cofounder of website Refunite tells Philanthropy Age how technology is helping rejoin families divided by the chaos of conflict

Worldwide, nearly 60 million displaced people have lost their homes and their communities, but some have lost more: their families. As the number who find themselves alone in the world continues to grow, one nonprofit is using technology to reunite refugees split up by the chaos of conflict. Christopher Mikkelsen, cofounder of Refunite, ‘the world’s largest platform of displaced people’ with more than 400,000 users, talks exclusively about the aid industry cabal, the promise of big data, and how GCC philanthropists could be a catalyst for change.

Why did you set up Refugees United (Refunite)?

My brother David and I founded Refunite after meeting Mansour, a young Afghan refugee. His family had fled to Pakistan from where a human trafficker promised to ship all seven of them to Scandinavia. The trafficker ended up disbursing the entire family. Mansour was 12-years-old. We met him in Denmark in 2005 at the age of 17, after he’d travelled through Russia and eastern Europe. We thought ‘How hard can it be to find your family?’ We filled out a paper form, which was sent to Geneva then to Peshawar, Pakistan, where it was checked against physical archives. We discovered humanitarian organisations within the same country didn’t share data. We never heard back. We ended up physically reuniting Mansour and one of his brothers in Russia through pure serendipity. Seeing them together, to have an emotional anchor again, changed everything.

Why not design a system to help aid agencies to share data?

We started out with a web platform for humanitarian agencies to exchange data and connect families faster. I spent three years trying to get the big organisations to collaborate around data. But nobody would listen to us – it didn’t feel like an inclusive environment and I didn’t come from the aid world. The framework we were looking at was very tech-focused: we had to make a lot of mistakes and the risk-climate in the aid sector didn’t seem very developed. In 2008 we pivoted and fostered private sector relationships. We’ve been fortunate to work with funders such as the Maersk Foundation, the family behind Lego, the IKEA Foundation and the Omidyar Network. Over the years we’ve raised about $10m.

"We're just starting in the Middle East and North Africa, but obviously the demand is enormous"

How does Refunite work?

Mobile operators are critical to what we do. We have partnerships with Asiacell in Iraq, Avea in Turkey, Zain in Jordan and South Sudan, among others. With the operator we triangulate areas with large numbers of refugees. We run mass text messaging campaigns to every subscriber in that area. The platform is completely free for refugees. Our algorithms use whatever details you’re comfortable sharing – name, clan or sub-clan, village name – and send SMS’ back with a list of people we think you might know or be related to. We don’t disclose physical whereabouts, phone numbers or emails. Refugees get in contact through the platform and, once they establish it is who they’re looking for, they exchange details.

We have 420,000 registered profiles currently. We’re just starting in the Middle East and North Africa so nearly 25,000 of those are from the region, but obviously the demand is enormous. We registered 6,000 people from Iraq in December alone – a record. We reconnect around 150 families a month, and it takes a couple of weeks on average. We’ve reconnected people who have been separated for decade: the longest stretch was 35 years for two Brazilian brothers. Whenever we make a link, it doesn’t just benefit two people – it benefits a whole family. We calculate each reconnection brings together about 6.5 people. Just a couple of months ago we reunited two brothers after 23 years – one was in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, the other in Mogadishu, Somalia – who reunited 49 family members in total because of those each of them had managed to stay in contact with.

Do you plan to expand?

We currently need about $2.5m a year to operate and we’re aggressively expanding to respond to all the places where we’re needed. I’m looking for $9.5m – 70 per cent is already committed – to cover the next three years. In terms of family tracing, the aim is to get 1.5 million registered profiles on the platform by 2019. I hope to be in another five or six countries this year, including Nigeria, India, the Philippines and Afghanistan and Pakistan with Etisalat. I’m excited about these last two because the need is so great, but also because my personal journey started there. We have yet to find the rest of Mansour’s family, it would be the biggest personal victory if we could go from reuniting one brother, to finding his whole family.

How else could you use the data you’ve gathered?

Because of the access, technology and know-how we’ve developed, we are in a critical position to foster further connectivity and digital inclusion for refugees in a profound way. We are rapidly approaching half a million profiles on Refunite – that is the world’s largest platform of displaced people. We have an opportunity to create an ecosystem where many different services can be provided to refugees, from financial inclusion to health. The fact we know so much about what’s going on gives us true insight into impact and needs.

The data doesn’t lie if you understand how to collect and read it: civic engagement and opportunities for the voiceless to have a platform they can coalesce around is incredibly interesting for us. That’s where we’ll be going. Our job at the end of the day is a communications job, looking at disconnected populations – two-thirds of the developing world’s population is offline – and seeing how you can get information to and from them.

What would you like to see GCC donors do?

I’d like them to take more risks, focus on impact and focus on technology. I’ve had to go back to my funders on numerous occasions and report anything from fraud happening at the base level, to products that failed. But working with philanthropists, who made their fortunes in fast moving businesses, meant they understood the nature of what we’re trying to do through technology.

What’s needed in the region is for the most influential of philanthropists to take the lead. There are many problems to be solved in the Middle East, but with the wealth that exists in the region there’s an opportunity to have a profound impact across the world. But I think they have to shuck traditional a little bit; and to get out of their own way. The region’s donors want to be worldly and this region can have a far bigger impact than it imagines. But to do that it needs to think more globally.