6 June 2017 Human development

Hack for Good – Digital marathon for refugees

On 24 and 25 June, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is organising another edition of the Hack for Good event. This year, the digital marathon is focusing on the development of technological solutions designed to improve the life of refugees in a partnership with Techfugees, a non-governmental organisation that mobilises the international tech community to come up with answers for this situation. This brings together over 150 participants from areas including programming, design, engineering, management, alongside others, in a two-day hackathon set the objective of developing wide reaching and sustainable solutions that resolve the challenges currently faced by refugees and refugee support organisations.

In a brief interview, the High Commissioner for Migrations, Pedro Calado (project mentor) provides some clues to help in contextualising the reality experienced by refugees in Portugal and correspondingly sharpening the focus of this hackathon.


Hack for Good wants to find solutions to improve the life of refugees in Portugal. How do you see the current situation in Europe?

Recent data from the European Commission about the re-settlement program point to a total of 1.2 million people having reached Europe in 2015 with only 18,000 having been re-settled in other European Union member states even while the commitment was to settle 160,000 refugees. I believe that this continues to be the largest problem. People do not even get to become refugees as they have not yet found any refuge; they are experiencing very difficult conditions in what get termed the “transit countries”, that is, Greece and Italy, where last winter was extremely harsh with negative temperatures, with many children exposed to this risk… I believe that it is important to focus on the difficulties of those who have already arrived, those who have yet to get integrated but above all we have to direct our attentions on the hundreds of thousands who are in this limbo. And, on one of the most developed continents, which is a bastion of human rights, I believe that it is time to bring an end to this situation, welcoming and giving refuge to these people.


As regards the situation in Portugal, does the High Commission receive a lot of requests for help? What are the main needs?

The ACM – the High Commission for Migrations integrates the Working Group on the European Migration Agenda in Portugal alongside many partners in a joint network that has taken in over 1,300 persons. The model is highly decentralised in applying this network of civil society partners and we already have persons living in 92 municipalities across the country. The ACM is responsible not only for deciding just where these people are to go, based on the map that we made of the availability, but also to support them in their integration processes. In this phase, I would say that above all else, we have two challenges: the first, largely overcome in recent months, relates to the Portuguese language. We have launched 420 study programs, which are available nationwide, and as well as an e-learning platform – an online platform – that enables the learning of Portuguese by Arabic speakers through totally online courses fully aligned with the European language framework. In this phase, what matters above all is employability. This aims to guarantee that these people, in the knowledge that they shall be here some time, are able to find jobs, professional training and, of course, thereby attain their autonomy. The statistics are promising: 38 per cent of refugees in Portugal have already found a job or are in training, and these are already frankly positive numbers. Now, we need to reach all the others and guaranteeing this match between supply and demand perhaps represents one of our greatest challenges.


You mentioned e-learning… Do you consider technologies as a good means of providing assistance?

Absolutely! This is unavoidable in this process because of the few objects that any asylum applicant or refugee brings with them is a tablet or smartphone, with an already fairly sophisticated level of technological access. Nowadays, a smartphone is fully accessible and almost all these people have one with them to contact their families and understand about the city they are in. We have under development, through the Refugee Welcome Kit, a digital version of welcome to Portugal that aids in smoothing integration and raising knowledge about our country. There is a lack of knowledge about Portugal among these refugees. Everything that helps to better inform, better communicate and eventually to resolve some of the challenges to integration of those who are here, will be absolutely extraordinary and thus I’m only left to thank the Gulbenkian for once again having challenged us to join together with this movement that is highly inspiring.


Among the various Hack for Good themes – Infrastructures, Education, Healthcare, Identity and Inclusion –, is there anything special that you think especially deserves technological support?

I think that this same diversity of themes reflects the complexity of the challenge of integration. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, we have to reach across many different dimensions. We always say here that integration is a multidimensional process and it is in this sense that I believe there are so many different themes to this as health is every bit as important as education or working or knowing the language and this all depends on each of the individuals, doesn’t it? Now, if you told me that I can only choose one, at this phase of the process then I would say that the essential revolves around employment related issues, knowledge about how our labour markets work, the question of recognising skills and competences, how do we best align supply and demand, how we might best ensure companies play their part in this… The theme of employability would seem absolutely decisive as we are now reaching a point in time 18 months on from the first arrivals and these 18 months are an important landmark as this sees institutional support coming to an end. From that point on, these people are to be autonomous. Therefore, if we are not able to ensure their autonomy through the means of work, then naturally we will face difficulties. Hence, this assistance also comes at an important point in time as the month of June represents the eighteenth month since the first refugees arrived in December 2015.


Any advice for the teams participating?

Listen to people. Listen to refugee people, understand that they bring with them a lot of competences and that more than anybody they know what they need. I think it is very important that we get a Hack for Good that has a great sense of utility. That would be the challenge I would leave behind: listen to the people, understand who they are, what they bring, and what they suggest to us as they shall certainly come up with some very good ideas.

Updated on 06 June 2017