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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

Urban Refugees Website

Twilio Website

Latest Updates

SMS Up Changes Communications for Urban Refugees

22 Feb 2018

Urban refugees report back on their ESI project which aimed to extend the capability of CBOs to self-organize by helping them connect more effectively with their community members.


Text Messages Take Communications To Next Level for Urban Refugees

15 Feb 2017

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


Related Resources

Information management, communication and technology, Refugees and IDPs

Final Report: SMS Up

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