Text Messages Take Communications To Next Level for Urban Refugees

SMS Up is a version of Whatsapp for SMS. It will enable refugees who do not have a smartphone or an internet connection on their cell phone to send an SMS message to multiple recipients using a single number, allowing them to communicate time-sensitive information and self-organize easily. SMS Up forms part of the Urban Refugee Incubation Program that aims to strengthen the capacities of refugee-led community-based organizations.

Testing Farsi script on SMS Up Message

Testing Farsi script on SMS Up Message

In today’s age of technology, SMS messages are hardly cutting-edge. But for one group, they are changing (and potentially saving) lives. In the developing world, where over 80% of refugees live, for many, access to smartphones and internet connectivity can be a challenge. As we are learning, the grassroots, refugee-led community centers we work with utilize common communication channels like WhatsApp and Viber to share information with their community members, including information about available services, job opportunities, travel routes, or other crucial tips, including updates from UN agencies and relief organizations.

Those without smartphones or internet access are cut off from these critical dialogues. For them, SMS text messaging is a lifeline, also enabling them to maintain contact with family, friends, and community members. URBAN REFUGEES has been committed to supporting the most vulnerable within the urban refugee population, and our latest project is no exception. SMS Up is a group messaging service that enables users to send SMS Messages to multiple recipients using a single mobile phone number. In other words, it provides a platform for community leaders to share time-sensitive and valuable information via text.

The SMS Up Project will proceed in three stages, and the URBAN REFUGEES team is currently working on the first stage, which consists of interviews with members of the Afghan and Somali refugee community in Kuala Lumpur to assess their communication habits, challenges, and needs. (In the next phase, we will incorporate what we’ve learned to develop the SMS App in a way that will serve as the most effective communication platform for urban refugees, and then in the final stage, we will provide training to community members on the use of the app and begin rolling it out.)

Vidya Ramkumar, SMS Project Manager, checks how SMS Up messages display across both feature phones and smartphones

Vidya Ramkumar, SMS Project Manager, checks how SMS Up messages display across both feature phones and smartphones

URBAN REFUGEES is working with 2 different CBOs on this project: the Afghan Community Center and the Somali Refugee Committee, both in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Vidya Ramkumar, URBAN REFUGEES’ SMS Up Project Manager has been leading the interview process with community members, and her preliminary research has found that feature phones are less prevalent than we expected, as many community members prioritize smartphone purchases to keep in touch with long-distance family and friends. Many, however, have limited access to internet connectivity, since data plans can be cost-prohibitive for many community members to purchase and maintain. Others only have wifi at home, which means their access to messages is limited to morning and evening, and time-sensitive information is often lost.

Vidya also reports that community members’ information priorities revolve around updates from UNHCR as well as persistent concern about whereabouts and intentions of local police. It is important to note that Malaysia does not recognize the refugee status, so fear of police is a daily reality. Additionally, job and housing opportunities are critical for the refugee community, and updates about friendly employers and housing options comprise important threads of conversation traffic on both communities’ group message boards.

Testing an SMS Up Message

Testing an SMS Up Message

Our team has also found that communication of this kind of information tends to be top-down. Community leaders have the closest connection to UNHCR and other for information sources, and then pass updates on to their community. The Afghan Community Center primarily uses Viber to communicate, and has 192 people and counting in their main communications group. According to our interviews, ACC leaders are keen to integrate SMS Up in their communications to ensure they’re reaching everyone in their community.

The Somali Refugee Committee currently uses Facebook as their primary means of communication, but faces many challenges including difficulty determining read receipts, etc. and limited visibility in members’ timeline feeds. One Somali leader told Vidya: “Even if it costs money, I would use SMS Up because it would give me the satisfaction of knowing it reached our entire audience.” The app would also facilitate two-way communication between community members and leaders—something the Somali community currently does not have access to.

SMS Up is part of our Urban Refugee Incubation Program (URIP), which aims to strengthen the capacities of urban refugee community based organizations (CBOs) that often struggle to share information with their community and to self-organize. This impedes them from acting as reliable relays with the humanitarian community. By facilitating the work of CBOs, SMS Up will also indirectly facilitate the work of the humanitarian community with refugees. We look forward to sharing updates as the program continues to unfold.

Elrha is hosted by Save the Children, a registered charity in England and Wales (213890) and Scotland (SC039570).

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