Opportunities and Challenges of Emerging Technologies for the Refugee System

Roya Pakzad

World Refugee Council Research Paper Series, World Refugee Council Research Paper No. 11, May 2019



This paper explores the potential role of technology in fostering greater accountability in the refugee system. The paper begins by describing several ways that technological solutions have improved the transparency, accountability and efficiency of refugee crises management.

  • Digital platforms (from Skype to online maps) can increasingly aid in the monitoring and documenting of human rights violations, and a number of civil society and academic groups have begun to use different methods to scrape, analyze and categorize publicly available social media content to document potential war crimes and human rights violations. Similar techniques are being used in monitoring conflict zones and enabling early-warning systems to better detect, analyze and react to potential factors leading to conflict and displacement.
  • Early stage technologies are being applied to streamline and add transparency to bureaucratic processes relating to refugees including identification, financial inclusion and humanitarian service management. Blockchain technology has begun to demonstrate some promise for addressing the issue of identity verification for refugees, financial inclusion and even “smart contracts” (digital protocols that facilitate the execution of a contract), and has potential for administering humanitarian aid with greater transparency. However, tying refugees’ identities and financial power to biometric data could have irreversible consequences in the event of a data breach and identity theft. A lack of privacy protection measures and attention to informed consent are also significant concerns.
  • Novel machine-learning algorithms are being applied to resettlement programs in host countries. The model is optimized, based on a refugee’s background and skill set, to match them to a host city in which they have a greater chance of finding employment. Researchers have also proposed using machine-learning techniques to improve impartiality of asylum-seeking adjudication cases.


However, new technologies also introduce new concerns surrounding privacy security and equality of refugees, e.g. risk of racial and gender discrimination as a result of training on incomplete data sets and flaws in models and learning algorithms. The paper sets out several recommendations to minimize the potential downsides and to improve the impact of emerging technologies, including: (a) quantifiable metrics for sharing information across public and private initiatives; (b) a pledge to ‘do no harm’, the equivalent of a “Hippocratic oath”, for technologists working in the humanitarian field; (c) development of predictive early-warning systems for human rights abuses; and (c) greater accountability among funders and technologists to ensure the sustainability and real-world value of humanitarian apps and other digital platforms.