As France relocates Calais refugees, can technology help?

As European governments grapple with the migration crisis, volunteers and entrepreneurs – some of them migrants themselves – are turning to new technologies.

Matt Dunham/AP
Crews start to demolish shelters under the protection of riot police in the makeshift migrant camp known as 'The Jungle' near Calais, northern France, Tuesday.

French authorities set about dismantling and bulldozing impromptu houses at the Calais migrant camp on Tuesday, with more than 4,000 of the camp’s estimated 7,000 inhabitants having left the site.

Most of the departed are bound via government bus for newly established Welcome and Orientation Centres (CAOs) located elsewhere in France, where they can apply for asylum or move to administrative centers typically considered the first step to deportation, according to the BBC. About 200 minors are also headed for Britain, while other children are being permitted to stay in the camp, in converted shipping containers.

Auberge des Migrants charity worker Christian Salome told the BBC that the process had gone smoothly because those leaving the camp were the ones who wanted to.

"I'm much more concerned about later in the week when the only ones remaining are those who do not want to leave, who still want to reach England,” he added.

With the clearing of the camp comes the demise of a politically potent symbol. But for many of the migrants squatting there, their departure is just the next chapter. And as has been the case throughout Europe’s refugee crisis, a flurry of tech innovations have sprung up to lend a hand to people who make long and perilous voyages into unknown countries that receive them uneasily or with outright hostility.

There’s the Refugee Info Bus, which brought a free Wi-Fi hotspot into the Calais camp. There are the countless Facebook groups for – and sometimes by – refugees seeking a place to squat, a host with a roof, credit for their phones, or navigation assistance to keep them safe during dangerous sea crossings. Or the apps for new arrivals to Germany for how to navigate the bureaucracy and learn the German language.

For Noora Lori, a Boston University assistant professor of international relations, such innovations are especially necessary given the nature of the crisis.

“It’s not going to be nation states” that resolve it, she tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a problem because of nation states.”

In one of Dr. Lori’s classes last spring, students drew up plans for an app, dubbed “Urban Refuge,” to connect Syrian refugees living in cities in Jordan with NGOs and service providers, and launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the app’s development.

Like other developers of volunteer projects, Lori says she and her students have gotten advice from connections in the private sector, but haven’t sought out government funding.

“Donors don’t just give you money,” she says. “They need to know exactly what you’re using the money for, and do an impact assessment of that money.” All that takes time and imposes a structure that might not be in tune with rapidly changing situations on the ground.

The fluid nature of such projects helps attract students and volunteers who may not know much about what’s needed but are eager to help. But it also might be frustrating a broader coordination of such efforts, according to a report released this month by the Migration Policy Institute.

“The speed of the tech response has outpaced policy debate, and any collaboration has been sporadic,” the report's authors wrote. “Thus, many digital efforts are poorly connected with traditional, offline services or with mainstream policy. At best, this means that critical lessons are not being shared across the two worlds. At worst, new developments might entrench inequalities—by making tools that only serve the highly educated and digitally proficient—or cause more harm than good, by giving vulnerable groups misleading information.” 

“Policymakers could better channel the streams of innovation by identifying particular problems that could benefit from a tech solution."

The deconstruction of the camp in Calais could come to a head toward the end of the week, as a few hundred adult residents are expected to try to stay. The city’s police commissioner says that the camp should be fully cleared by Friday.

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