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Ericsson, mobile operators gear SMS app for refugees

Ericsson, MTN and Safaricom will be providing a platform for refugees and displaced persons

Ericsson has teamed up with Africa's leading mobile operators to provide a free SMS-based application to help reunite refugees and displaced persons with families.

Ericsson, MTN and Safaricom will be providing a platform for refugees and displaced persons to send text messages to a database to try to locate their families. MTN, with operations in 20 African countries, is targeting 120,000 users by end of year while Safaricom, with operations in Kenya, is targeting a similar number, owing to the high number of refugees and internally displaced people in the country.

"Through the use of technology, in particular mobile communications, we aim to significantly increase the chances of people finding each other, so that this number can be dramatically reduced," said Craig Hosken, country manager of Ericsson Kenya and vice president for sub-Saharan Africa.

The application provides services via Web and SMS through a database hosted in Denmark. Users will be expected to input as much information as possible to increase their likelihood of finding their loved ones.

"It took me 12 years to trace my family," said Emmanuel Jal, a musician and former child soldier in Sudan. "Thanks to an interview with British broadcaster BBC, my family traced me; this is not the case for many children born in conflict and in refugee camps; technology will now make it easier."

Out of 2 million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya hosts 400,000, according to statistics from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. South Africa, Chad, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia are among other hosts, resulting from decades of civil conflicts in the continent.

"With more than 17 million subscribers in Kenya today, as compared to the estimated 820,000 PC owners with access to Internet (2 percent of the population of Kenya), the service via mobile phones is the obvious tool for this kind of support in Kenya and will soon be extended to allow SMS as well as Web access by Safaricom customers," said Bob Collymore, Safaricom CEO.

The project was piloted in the Adjumani refugee settlement in Uganda in partnership with UNHCR. Refugees United, an organization working closely with the U.N., has confirmed that in the past nine months, more than 41,000 people have registered in their search for missing family members.

"This partnership with Safaricom will help us reach many more people with critical information, to potentially restore contact with missing loved ones," said David Troensegaard, co-founder of Refugees United.

"Because of data sensitivity, the application is running on dedicated, secured servers with top-level firewalls; the servers can only be serviced using a secured protocol narrowed down by specific IP addresses and only certified personnel have access to the server for maximum security," said Nzioka Waita, Safaricom corporate affairs director.

Refugees United has also made search and profile service available to partners through an API (application programming interface), which has facilitated the SMS-based search for the mobile providers, and all partners are expected to adhere to a strict privacy policy.

The application is expected to be offered by more network operators in Africa once it becomes more widely used.


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