In a world where social media makes it easier than ever to know exactly what your friends and family, not to mention complete strangers, are doing, it should not be a luxury to know where your loved ones are. However, the very same world is also witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that there are currently 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. But those people are more than just a number. Every one of those individuals is someone’s mother, father, son or daughter. And each of them deserves to know where their family is.

After being uprooted from their homes and shuffled back and forth between camps all over the world, refugees know all too well how easy it can be to become separated from your family. Reuniting displaced refugees can be a daunting task. Many of these people do not have regular access to phones or the Internet, let alone official documents of identification.

But the Internet can be a powerful tool. Refugees United, or REFUNITE (RU), is a new kind of platform working to connect family members escaping disasters, persecutions or conflicts who have ended up in different parts of the world, sometimes completely alone. Founded in 2006 by two Danish brothers, Christopher and David Mikkelsen, REFUNITE aims to be a sort of “Google for refugee search.”

In the past, most United Nations agencies have tended to rely on the International Committee of the Red Cross, the global network of Red Cross organizations. However, due to privacy reasons the Red Cross and the United Nations are restricted from looking at one another’s databases, leading to a lot of inefficiencies.

While the Red Cross system has helped tremendously in reuniting displaced refugees with their families, the system requires individuals to apply for help from a third party to conduct the searches. The staff of national Red Cross societies does most of the tracing by responding to requests from other countries. However, without a global database, people looking for family members are forced to guess which countries to search.

“We didn’t want to be the kind of NGO that is a third party providing help to refugees,” RU founder David Mikkelsen said. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to take control of their situations and help themselves – and give NGOs another tool to help.”

RU went live in May 2010. The first words of the registration page read: “We do NOT recommend the service of Refugees United to people at risk of being traced by potential persecutors.” Once a username and password are established, a profile is created. The site stresses anonymity, reminding people “Everyone can see the information in your profile. Use nicknames, initials or information only known by your family.”

Users then input the last known location of family members as well as exclusive information that only loved ones would know, such as birthmarks or favorite foods. These steps can be left blank if desired, and the database can be searched without registering an account. But as a search platform, RU’s success depended on the power of networks: in order to be effective, REFUNITE needed to attract as many users as possible.

As of October 2017, over 750,000 refugees are registered on the platform, making it the largest missing refugee database. Today, REFUNITE operates across 17 countries with 16 technology and mobile carriers with access to around 370 million mobile subscribers. Now, United Nations organizations and refugee groups work with REFUNITE, such as the International Rescue Committee, as well as Facebook.

Getting the word out about REFUNITE is still the biggest challenge in reuniting displaced refugees. However, with the web platform available in 12 languages and text services in five, the organization is making its way to becoming accessible to refugees who speak hundreds of languages across the world.

Richa Bijlani

Photo: Flickr

South Sudanese Civil WarSouth Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011. In the six years since, the nation in northeastern Africa has fought to keep the peace, first during an armed conflict with Sudan that ended in 2015, then during a violent civil war which is still going on. These are 10 facts about the South Sudanese civil war that are important to understanding the conflict.

  1. South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world. It declared independence from Sudan in 2011, after a referendum in which 98 percent of people voted for separation from the north.
  2. The South Sudanese civil war began in December 2013, after President Salva Kiir Mayardit accused Vice-President Riek Machar of planning a failed coup.
  3. Kiir is a member of the country’s majority ethnic group, the Dinka. Vice-President Machar is Nuer, the country’s largest-second group.
  4. In 2015, the two sides signed a peace agreement to end the civil war.
  5. Violence broke out again in 2016 when the Liberation Army, loyal to Kiir, fought against Machar’s soldiers.
  6. During the South Sudanese civil war, at least 50,000 people have been killed, more than two million have become refugees in other countries and around five million South Sudanese have faced severe food shortages.
  7. Two million South Sudanese have fled the country because of the civil war. Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan are the principal nations where the refugees have gone.
  8. 62 percent of all South Sudanese refugees are under 18 years old.
  9. The United Nations projects that six million people, about 50 percent of South Sudan’s population, will be severely food insecure in 2017.
  10. Inside the country, where the South Sudanese civil war still continues, 4.9 million people need urgent food assistance.

Violence persists in the northeastern African nation. The South Sudanese civil war has increased unemployment and famine rates. In addition, nearby countries have opened their borders to the South Sudanese, overcrowding refugee camps and making the delivery of aid harder. However, nonprofit organizations and global institutions, primarily the U.N. Refugee Agency, are working to end the conflict in South Sudan and provide its people with basic need like food and shelter.

Dario Ledesma

Photo: Flickr

Refugees in Kenya
Kalobeyei is a town located in the northwestern part of Kenya that was built by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) along with the local government of Turkana county. The town was designed as a location where refugees could become integrated with the local community and where this integration would benefit shared services and markets, thereby reducing the cost for Western aid donors. Unfortunately, this has not exactly worked out as planned for refugees in Kenya.

There have been quite a few issues that have risen since the town’s creation. The most prominent of these issues is that Kalobeyei was established just as South Sudan’s civil war greatly intensified, causing many refugees in Kenya to arrive with hardly anything more than the clothes on their backs, as well as without the proper resources that would help them make an attempt at a new life.

The World Food Programme provides $14 per month as a cash allowance to each refugee, which is supposed to cover up to 80 percent of an individual’s needs in the town. This may not be enough to live off of due to the current conditions these refugees are left in after the civil war, especially since Kalobeyei is hosting nearly 40,000 refugees, including individuals from places such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

There have also been many complaints from the refugees in Kenya who are currently residing in Kalobeyei. Refugees say that little to nothing that they were promised has been offered in the town. They have found themselves in an isolated camp where both food and water are in short supply and that residents are at the mercy of thievery that goes on within Kalobeyei. One resident of the town—an Ethiopian refugee—said, “When they brought us here, we were told that the place would be like a community village with many development projects, a school, clinic, market and almost everything close by,” but there is close to nothing within the settlement that is within walking distance.

When the UNHCR’s office in Kenya heard of this story, communications director Yvonne Ndege had a drastically different description of what life was like residents of Kalobeyei saying that the town was in fact not built in a remote area and had markets, water tanks and primary schools on-site, as well as stating that “there is no heightened security situation or security threat at Kalobeyei or Kakuma.” She went on to explain that refugees had the option to visit the camp before relocating and that perhaps they “may have had different expectations,” despite having viewed Kalobeyei in advance.

Whatever the case may be, it is wise to be empathetic and understanding toward refugees in Kenya when it comes to these situations—having to relocate yourself and your family is never easy, and struggling in a new environment does not make anything less difficult. Hopefully, the UNHCR will empathize and refugees in Kenya will be able to resolve and overcome the issues with Kalobeyei, for the town is meant to only do good.

Sara Venusti

Photo: Flickr

 Serbia Refugees
From 2015 through March 2016 refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and more traveled through Serbia on their way to Hungary and Croatia. The closing of the border led many people to think that the refugee crisis was over, but refugees from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia continue to arrive in Serbia daily. Below are 10 facts about Serbia refugees and the unprecedented crisis.

  1. Between May 2015 and March 2016, over 920,000 refugees from Greece, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq traveled through Serbia as they made their way to Hungary and Croatia.
  2. About 20.1 million euros in humanitarian aid from the EU helped provide emergency assistance at 16 government shelters. These shelters provide services including medical care, family-friendly shelter, clothing, food, water and security. Currently, aid is being used to improve living conditions at shelters. Previously, Serbia received 24.5 million euros in aid toward the refugee crisis.
  3. Winter weather and freezing temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius endanger the health and lives of as many as 1,500 refugees living in the streets or unheated temporary shelters. Sadly, 60 percent are unaccompanied minors. Many people are afraid to go to official shelters due to concerns that they will be deported.
  4. The Serbian government, the U.N. Refugee Agency, and other humanitarian agencies made room in heated shelters for 5,000 more beds.
  5. The Serbian government opened additional accommodations in mid-January enabling 400 refugees, including women and children, to move from unsanitary improvised shelters to a clean shelter – 85 percent of refugees are now living in one of 17 government shelters.
  6. Humanitarian organizations are prohibited from helping refugees outside official shelters. A group of international volunteers called “Hot Food Idomeni” has found a way to help. They serve a hot soup ensuring that refugees living outside official shelters get a least one meal a day.
  7. The EU civil protection mechanism along with 10 Member States provided 246,000 relief items to Serbia.
  8. The government registered 815,000 refugees in 2015. There was a dramatic drop in the number of refugees arriving in Serbia after the closure of the “Western Balkan migration route” in March 2016.
  9. Since the closure of the “Western Balkan migration route” refugees have been stranded in Serbia. Many have stayed in one of 16 reception centers located in the west and south. Refugees are free to travel around the country. They can even apply for asylum.
  10. After the closure of the migration route, a small number of refugees from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia continued to arrive increasing the number of refugees from 2,000 in March 2016 to 7,550 in December 2016.

People flee war-torn countries hoping to find safe refuge within the borders of their neighbor. These 10 facts about Serbia refugees reveal what these brave refugees endure in their journey to find their safe refuge.

Mary Barringer

Photo: Flickr

Various news and media sites constantly are reporting on the state of global poverty. Whether it is discussion of hunger relief efforts or education reform in developing countries, following the mass media’s coverage of the fight against global poverty can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, the United Nations’ website provides live and on-demand video coverage of meetings, press conferences and other multimedia presentations to keep viewers informed about the latest news.

Though the UN participates in only one sector of the fight against global poverty, it is a large and influential one. Since its founding in 1945, the UN has contributed to maintaining peace, improving literacy, promoting democracy and protecting basic human rights in countries all over the world. Clearly, the UN has no trouble keeping track of the latest developments in the state of global poverty.

As a result, the UN’s website is reliable source of news for those that want to know about this ongoing fight. The Web TV page is a resource for those that want high-speed access to select news regarding projects and ongoing policies.  Opening the site in a Web browser on a laptop, iPad, tablet or smartphone directs viewers to a multitude of videos and schedules of upcoming live broadcasts.

Videos on the online channel are organized into five categories: Live Now, Meetings & Events, Media, News & Features and Topics & Issues. In addition, the site highlights one video each week that details a topical issue or ongoing project. Informative videos such as these are saved in the archives so that viewers can access them at any time afterward.

The most current news and information is available in the form of live streams of UN meetings and daily media and press releases.  For example, the UN presents a press briefing at noon each day.  The speeches are filmed and uploaded to the Media section of the UN Web TV channel. By subscribing to UN Web TV, viewers will receive up-to-date schedules on when live meetings will occur and the other live programs available on the site each day. Subscriptions are not required, however, to watch any of the videos.

On June 27, the live webcast was titled “Rebuilding Timbuktu: The restoration of an intellectual and spiritual capital and its vital role in Mali’s post-conflict recovery.” Less than a week later, the live broadcast highlighted sustainable development forums.

By watching the videos, viewers can become more aware not only of the latest news in foreign aid and policy agreement, but also learn about the ways that the UN is working to alleviate global poverty. One of the most current featured videos showcases the new shelter built at the UN Headquarters in New York.  The video discusses both Ikea and the UN Refugee Agency’s roles in building the shelter and how shelters like this one are beneficial.

Many of the videos are broadcast in six different languages, thereby extending accessibility of the site beyond the English speaking world. Because of its accessibility, the UN Web TV channel quickly is becoming a source for up-to-date information regarding global poverty like many other online resources.

– Emily Walthouse

Sources: UN Web TV, UN, UNESCO
Photo: Impact Leadership 21

In September 2013, the Dominican Republic constitutional court ruled that children of undocumented migrants do not have the right of citizenship, even if they themselves were born within the country. This has deprived those affected of being able to renew passports, register for college, vote, receive healthcare benefits and hold a steady job. The policy has revoked the only nationality for most of the people affected, overall causing citizenship limbo in the Dominican Republic.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the law will negatively affect about 210,000 people in the Dominican Republic, and the overwhelming majority of them are descendants of Haitian immigrants. This exclusionary act has caused tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti to rise, and has been deemed by many as having racist motives. The government’s “quick fix” for this is to issue temporary resident passes to the children of the immigrants until they hammer out an immigration status appropriately.

After international pressure from various human rights groups, President Denilo Medina presented a bill to ease the path of citizenship for children of immigrants in the Dominican Republic, in hopes to “create a country without exclusion and without discrimination.”

The bill was passed by the lower house on May 16 and was unanimously approved by the senate on May 21. The future law states that children born to non-documented immigrants could maintain citizenship provided they have Dominican Republic identification documents and are in the civil registry. Those without the necessary documents could apply for residency and eventually citizenship if they have proof that they were born in the Dominican Republic.

This new bill has eased tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, taken pressure off of the Dominican Republic from political and human rights activists and halted the potential economic issues that would have come with disenfranchising a large portion of a population.

Although it is a huge step in the right direction, human rights groups are still worried that this bill is discriminating against the many poor potential citizens who do not have any of their original documents. The government states that in order to alleviate this issue, those people will have the ability to go through a naturalization process two years after registering in the Dominican Republic.

– Courtney Prentice

Sources: New York Times, The Guardian, BBC
Photo: Cloud Front

In a traditionally volatile region, violence has once again broken out. In the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two rebel groups have been engaging in fighting with the Congolese armed forces. M23, the most active of the rebel groups operating in the DRC, launched an assault on the army stationed around the city of Goma on July 14th. Prior to that though, the Allied Democratic Forces engaged the armed forces on July 11th. Caught in the crossfire of these separate engagements are tens of thousands of civilians, forced to flee as fighting erupted.

Many of these refugees fled across the border into Uganda where transit centers are quickly filling. In the first few days of the conflict 66,000 Congolese refugees crossed the border. And that was before violence erupted between M23 and the national forces. The situation is even more difficult in Uganda as the country is already playing host to more than 200,000 refugees – 60% of whom originate from the DRC – before this latest round of violence.

The UN Refugee Agency has an annual operating budget of $93.8 million for Uganda, but less than half of this has so far been funded. With the sudden influx of refugees from both Ugandan conflicts, a large portion of the extra burden is falling on Uganda. With transit centers near the borders rapidly filling, the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister pledged to begin registering refugees and relocating them to longer term refugee camps, where they will be supplied with plots of land to farm. This process, however, is time-consuming, and over-congestion in the transit camps, and the subsequent risk of disease as livestock and people live together in close quarters, has become a primary concern.

With the rebels, particularly M23 around Goma, refusing to back down, UN intervention may soon be seen. UN peacekeepers in the DRC, MONUSCO, had set a deadline of August 1st for rebel troops to hand in their weapons and demobilize. Leaders of the rebel group however dismissed the ultimatum as irrelevant. As a result, a UN intervention brigade, comprised of 3000 troops from Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania – part of the 20,000 strong peacekeeping force – may soon engage rebel troops in an attempt to establish a “security zone” around the city of Goma.

– David M. Wilson
Sources: UNHCR, Times Live, IRIN News
Sources: Alissa Everett

In a recent statement to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, issued an urgent call for funds to help Mali Refugees get access to life-saving aid.  Spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists, “To date, we have received only 13 percent of the $153.7 million needed to assist desperate Malians displaced inside and outside their country.”  The UN first sounded the alarm in April, calling for US $144 million in aid.  However, in the subsequent months, as the crisis in Mali has worsened, and several thousand more refugees began fleeing the country, the need has become greater and more urgent.

UNHCR warned that basic needs such as the need for water are not being adequately met in the arid Sahel region where many refugees have fled.  The standard is 20 liters of water (about 5 gallons) per day per son. Currently refugees are receiving half that amount.  To compound the problem, water has to be transported to remote regions by truck, and that takes both time and money.  Efforts to dig wells have been only partially successful, as lingering drought has caused several wells to run try after as little as 12 weeks. The shortage of water, according UNHCR, is “dire.”  Efforts to provide schooling in the refugee camps have also been hampered, leaving 3 out of 4 refugee children without access to education.

More than 170,000 refugees need assistance.  That number does not include almost 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) still in Mali and still in great need.  Moreover, people have fled to neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania, countries which themselves are facing serious problems with poverty, conflict, and water shortages.

In addition to governments providing the much-needed aid, individuals can donate to UNCHR’s efforts as well through this link on the organization website.

– Délice Williams

Sources: UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Oxfam
Sources: MSNBC Media