REFUNITE is the world's largest missing persons network for refugees. In an interview, the group's co-founders and brothers, David and Christopher Mikkelsen, spoke about their motivation and the challenges they experienced while implementing the project.
We founded REFUNITE after helping a young Afghan refugee who had lost track of his entire family during their escape from Kabul and the Taliban. We discovered in the process that none of the large organizations had created any kind of IT infrastructure to collect, curate and distribute data on missing families and we founded REFUNITE to be just that. REFUNITE functions through low-tech platforms such as SMS, enabling most refugees through any phone, to engage with our services. They register, search, find and communicate through our platform free of charge, as the mobile operators subsidize all traffic, which is a tremendous help for people so poor they feel the cost even of $0.01.
How do you fund the project?
REFUNITE is funded through partnerships with private foundations and large tech companies like Ericsson, Vodafone, Facebook and others.
What countries are you engaged in?
Due to our corporate partnerships with large mobile network operators, we are able to communicate directly with refugees and send text messages directly to their phones. Thanks to our lead technology partner, Ericsson, we work with mobile companies such as Safaricom in Kenya, Vodacom DRC in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Asiacell in Iraq, and Zain Group in Jordan and South Sudan. We also collaborate independently with Telesom in Somaliland and Hormuud in Somalia.
REFUNITE has also partnered with Internet.org by Facebook to make our service available free of charge in the following countries: Iraq (Korek, Zain), Liberia (Cellcom), South Africa (Cell C), Rwanda (Airtel), Democratic Republic of the Congo (Airtel, Tigo), Kenya (Airtel), Tanzania (Tigo), Niger (Airtel), Pakistan (Telenor, Zong), Philippines (Globe, SMART), Ghana (Airtel), and Nigeria (Airtel).
Have you succeeded in uniting families?
How does it work?
Reuniting a family separated for years by conflict is the most rewarding experience we can have. Family is the cornerstone of the lives of all people, and when these bonds are broken, they ruin lives. To bring people back to the most important and fundamental part of their life, family, is a wonderful thing.
What challenges did you face?
Our challenges were and are many: from operating in conflict zones to building technology for semi-literate refugees, to fighting the bureaucracies of the non-profit world, what we first and foremost needed was tenacity and a lot of determination to change a world we disagreed with.
What are your plans for the future?
REFUNITE has become the largest open platform of refugees in the world, helping more than 600,000 people, which we think we can leverage into a lot of good in many other ways of assistance.
The Mikkelsens have been named Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation.
This interview was conducted by InfoMigrants by Manasi Gopalakrishnan.