Organisation: URBAN REFUGEES

Partners: Twilio

Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Type of grant: Core – invention

Status: Ongoing

  • Testing Farsi script on SMS Up Message

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

  • Testing an SMS Up Message

  • Both smartphone and a feature phone users can utilize the SMS Up platform

  • Project manager, Vidya Ramkumar, tests SMS Up

  • Community members receive SMS Up training

SMS Up is a group messaging service—like WhatsApp—for SMS, that enables users to connect with their community via text message. It facilitates vital group communication for the 86% of today’s global refugees living in developing countries without regular internet access.


Until now, technology and internet access barriers have prevented refugees from communicating time-sensitive information or self-organizing on any significant scale. Instead, information is communicated in a top-down manner from agencies like the UN. SMS Up is a simple, grassroots, low-cost solution that offers a bottom-up alternative: with SMS Up, refugees themselves can create their own community distribution lists, share critical information, and be empowered to self-organize easily.


Disaster-affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine, and shelter. SMS Up enables access to this information from within the refugee community, utilizing basic SMS text messaging technology. The service can be set up from any phone, and text messages will reach anyone on the user’s chosen distribution list—regardless of location. No data plan, internet, or smartphone is required, and the service is free—users pay only for the single text message.

SMS Up will enable refugees to:

  1. Share time-sensitive information so that a community member can notify other refugees when a security issue arises, or to call for help
  2. Self-organize easily to facilitate information sharing, including: available services in a city, names of friendly employers, housing opportunities, or to coordinate community meetings
  3. Easily find support: with just the distribution list name refugees can send an SMS to a whole community to find assistance


SMS Up can be potentially used by anyone, although our focus will be on refugees, particularly those living in cities of developing countries. SMS Up will also be very useful to the work of urban refugee community-based organizations, as they need to communicate information with their community regularly and face challenges when doing so, as many members of the community lack regular internet access.

SMS Up can also facilitate the work of humanitarian organizations. Various research reports (1) have indicated that strong refugee community-based organizations can help humanitarian organizations better support refugees in urban contexts, which are particularly challenging environments. SMS Up helps those refugee organizations self organize and to be contacted easily by NGOs.

SMS Up can also be seen as a protective measure for refugees reducing insecurity on a psychological and concrete level.

(1) New approaches to urban refugee livelihoods, D. Buscher, 2011

Elrha is a registered charity in England and Wales (1177110).

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