Can Technology Help Address Global Migrant Crisis? Experts Weigh In

A panel discussion at the "Ensuring continuity of care at different stages of the migration process" session of the Gevena Health Forum
A panel discussion at the “Ensuring continuity of care at different stages of the migration process” session of the Gevena Health Forum. From left to right: Alexios Georgalis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Reinaldo Ortuno Gutierrez of Médecins Sans Frontières, Rebecca Marcussen-Lewis of SOS Méditerranée and Sanjula Weerasinghe, a representative of the International Federation of Red Cross.

As the world grapples with a migrant and refugee crisis of unprecedented scale, with 281m international migrants and 3.5m refugees globally, according to UN agencies, experts are turning to technology, particularly artificial intelligence, in search of solutions.

The potential for AI and technology to foster a more equitable and sustainable world has been recognised by international organisations. Last year, the World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, and International Telecommunication Union formed the Global Initiative on AI for Health to facilitate the implementation of AI in healthcare. During the 2024 World Economic Forum, specialists underscored both AI’s transformative potential and the associated risks, emphasising the necessity of cooperation and ethical guidelines to harness its benefits responsibly.

With record numbers of people on the move worldwide, can technology help tackle the migrant and refugee crises? Four experts addressed the question at the Geneva Health Forum on Monday during a day focused on migration and health equity.

Here are their insights. 

Alexios Georgalis, who co-authored the Boys on the Move life skills curriculum – a UNICEF initiative that guides unaccompanied male adolescents displaced by conflict and poverty – believes that although AI cannot fully resolve the refugee crisis, digitalizing and gamifying interventional packages could have a substantial impact. His work focuses on educating young male migrants about exploitation and trafficking, as well as providing mental health support.

“Almost every refugee has a smartphone,” Georgalis noted, indicating that digital tools could serve as a “gateway into their psyches and their hands.”

Reinaldo Ortuno Gutierrez of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recommended developing geotargeted technologies to help migrants find healthcare wherever they are. MSF already uses QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone to provide a map of care sites, from primary care to psychiatric care. Gutierrez also mentioned secure referral systems that allow patient files to travel safely via smartphone, ensuring continuity of care. “It would be ideal to have some kind of passport for everyone, but at the moment, it is very limited,” he said.

Sanjula Weerasinghe, a representative of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), highlighted the potential benefits of digitally-carried medical records, allowing migrants to “take responsibility and control of their own data.” However, she noted that while efforts to generate this type of record-keeping are underway, no such technology currently exists. Weerasinghe, like Gutierrez, pointed out that some international organisations have developed apps to help migrants locate and access services.

Rebecca Marcussen-Lewis
Rebecca Marcussen-Lewis, SOS Méditerranée. 

In contrast, Rebecca Marcussen-Lewis of SOS Méditerranée, a search and rescue NGO operating boats tasked with rescuing drowning migrant vessels, highlighted the challenges of digitalization in her work on the Mediterranean Sea.

“We don’t have connectivity, so everything being digital and online is not so easy for us, and if everything moves in that direction, we run the risk of losing the ability to do our work,” she said.

However, Marcussen-Lewis acknowledged that telemedicine could be helpful, allowing her team to reach out to a network of experts when faced with unfamiliar medical situations at sea. With a team of four serving over 630 people on a 69-meter boat, “being able to have a network that we can reach out to when we have a presentation that none of us has come across before is fantastic,” she said.

Image Credits: Maayan Hoffman.

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