RefugeesUnited offers mobile hope for loved-one search

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Refugees in Pakistan
Image caption,
The service should help refugees locate their families

A free mobile service has been set up to help reunite refugees who have been displaced by war, persecution or natural disasters.

The innovative system from non-profit organisation Refugees United allows people with even the most basic of handsets to quickly register their details via SMS, and be matched up with those looking for them.

The scheme - often referred to as simply Refunite - differs from other social networks as it allows a user to upload only the information they are comfortable with sharing, such as nicknames or even just descriptions of birthmarks or other quirks.

The layer of anonymity means refugees who have fled their home countries in fear can preserve the safety while still sharing enough information for family and friends to be able to find them.

The site was founded by Christopher and David Mikkelsen. For the BBC World Service's Digital Planet, Anna Cavell spoke to David.

"The idea came about when I was helping a young Afghani refugee called Mansour trying to locate his family a couple of years ago.

"While doing so, my brother and I realised this possibility of an online tracing tool where you could go in, do a profile, giving out information that you're only comfortable with."

The site has since attracted thousands of users. But in order for it to develop further, the Mikkelsen brothers knew they had to reach audiences who did not have access to a computer and the internet.

"We're doing a pilot on how to do search and registration via mobile phones.

"Not just via smart phones, but actually also by the old school text messaging system. Even in the most remote refugee settlements, you still find mobile phones everywhere."


Tomas Krag, Refunite's technical director, explained how by using a simple question and answer format, users can be quickly registered from an "old school" mobile handset.

"There's a series of keywords, so if you send 'REG' to the number, it assumes you're registering and it sends you back a request that starts off by asking your name. Then it asks your age and your gender and so forth.

"By the end of it the refugee will have registered. Then there's a simple menu system that allows you to choose different options afterwards so you can search for people on the system, and if you find someone you think might be family you can send a message as well."

The site urges people contacted by other users to ask a series of personal questions to establish that the contactee is in fact who they claim to be.

One area the system is being trialled in is Adjumani, north Uganda, near the Sudan border. There are 10,000 refugees there, living in thatched mud huts. A lot of huts, however, offer a chance to charge mobile phones via solar panels.

John is a local custodian of Refunite, helping the people in Adjumani sign up.

"I'm tasked with the responsibility of registering the refugees in the system of Refunite.

"I support them in mentoring them in how the systems work, in coaching them in how they can use the system."

It is vital work, says Kai Nielsen from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Prior to this software being developed and this project being started, it required a physical presence for tracing to be undertaken.

"This project does this electronically, so it does not require the physical presence in, sometimes, locations where it's actually impossible to be physically present."

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