The refugee crisis has grown in urgency over the past five years, as wars and conflict forced more people from their homes than at any other time in history. Today, there are over 65.3 million displaced persons globally according to UNHCR.

The world’s single largest driver of displacement is the ongoing war in Syria. Instability and protracted conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere add to the crisis.

One connection at a time

A mobile phone can be a lifeline for those looking for lost loved ones. Since 2010, Ericsson has been the lead technology partner to REFUNITE (Refugees United), a non-profit organization dedicated to help displaced people locate missing family and friends. Ericsson has supported development of an online family reconnection platform, providing technical expertise, and engaging with mobile network operators, other socially-minded organizations, to achieve the joint mission of getting 1 million refugees registered on the platform. The mobile phone platform combines a simple, low-tech user interface, such as SMS and USSD text messaging services, with high-tech backend search algorithms and analytics. Cost free, it works over low bandwidth on the most basic devices for ease of use.

Rising number of users

REFUNITE has assisted thousands of forcibly displaced families, resulting in hundreds of family reconnections. As of October 2016, over 560,000 people had registered on the platform. The web platform is available globally, with mobile collaborations in the following countries: Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Extending service with voicemail

In 2016 we began to develop an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and VoiceMail touch point as an extension of the REFUNITE call center in Kenya. Employing the functionalities of an existing Ericsson platform, Messaging in One, the IVR system builds on the call center and toll-free line touch points enabled by REFUNITE in multiple markets. The IVR functionality will allow illiterate users or users with low technology skills to use their mobile phone to find loved ones. The system was developed internally by Ericsson including three telecom and software engineering students participating in international internships in co-operation with the Telefónica Spain Talentum Startups scholarship. If successful, the next steps will be to look at bringing the system to a live environment.