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Stories of Change - How the digital platform REFUNITE is helping refugees reconnect with their families

Author: Charlotte Shields
Published Date: 14 October 2015

At SIX we think it is important to tell stories where social innovation has impacted people’s lives for the better. Our Stories of Change series tells you the stories that inspire us from around the world.

When in 2005 David and Christopher Mikkelsen came across Mansour - an Afghan refugee in Copenhagen who had been separated from his parents and siblings by traffickers, during their escape into Pakistan from the Taliban in their native Kabul - the Mikkelsen brothers experienced first-hand the inefficiencies of the fragmented, hardcopy-based procedure used by disconnected agencies, as they helped Mansour to find members of his family. This was the beginning of their journey to find a better way to help loved ones relocate one another following forced separation.

The scale of the present migration crisis needs no introduction. With daily news reports covering stories of desperate migrant journeys ending in tragedy, and the issue of fairly resettling refugees across Europe, the situation for those fleeing war-torn areas is clearly difficult enough. Something perhaps under-represented by the media are the emotional stories of individuals separated from loved ones, not knowing where their relatives are, or even whether they are still alive, adding to personal distress.

Founded in 2008, REFUNITE has transformed the family tracing process, significantly increasing the number of cases opened by individuals wishing to reconnect. By using collaborative technology, they have facilitated the sharing of information about individuals held by various agencies, removing the spatial and administrative limitations of paper documents, thereby speeding up and reducing the cost of the previously arduous process. As an example of the result of their work, the Mikkelsen brothers’ organization has increased the efficiency of the Kenyan Red Cross such that it now opens 700 cases per day, whereas it used to open 700 per year, according to David Mikkelsen. And with cross-agency collaboration, individuals are now much more likely to be successful in their search.

Originally, people could only sign up to REFUNITE’s mobile platform. Now, there are a number of ways to initiate a search: by SMS; phonecall; USSD, or online from a mobile or computer. No longer limited to one platform, REFUNITE is thus technologically inclusive; the 5,084,499 searches carried out between 2010-2014, and the registration of 399,876 affected people with the service in the same period, demonstrate the scale of its uptake.

Recognising that many users may have become separated after fleeing their homes having receiving threats – like Rahma, who was reconnected with her brother 22 years apart – REFUNITE allows people to register with as much information about themselves as they are comfortable to give, and the digital form lets individuals provide culturally relevant details like their clan or tribe membership. They can also search using appropriate information about their loved ones, and contact those who they might be related to, or receive a text when a user is found who matches the description provided by the searcher.

Testimonials paint a picture of hope amidst the disruption and emotional turmoil faced by those displaced by conflict and misfortune, such as the recently published story of Ibrahim and Hassan (pseudonyms) in Somalia - In 2008, Ibrahim returned home from work to find his 36 family members. After fleeing from his home and moving between refugee camps in fear of his safety from kidnapping, Ibrahim wanted to reconnect with his brother. Meanwhile, Hassan had fled to Northeastern Somalia, and on to Saudi Arabia, where he searched for Ibrahim on social media. Hassan clicked on an advert for REFUNITE while online in an Internet café four months after Ibrahim registered having heard of a Somali woman and daughter being reconnected. Despite being in different countries, the platform enabled the two to get in contact with each other once more, and has sparked their hope that they might find others in their family.

REFUNITE hopes to reconnect a million individuals by the end of 2015, and given the current refugee crisis, it is, alas, unlikely that a lack of displaced people will impede their ambition. Read more about REFUNITE and its success stories at