URBAN REFUGEES to develop a mobile messaging system to help refugee community overcome communication challenges


Paris, France — November 14, 2016. URBAN REFUGEES is thrilled to announce full funding by Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (the HIF) to develop a mobile messaging system—called SMS Up—a positive paradigm shift in the challenging communication reality for today’s global refugees.

In the developing world, where over 80% of refugees live, many refugees do not have access to smartphones and internet connectivity, which prevents them from utilizing common communication channels like WhatsApp and Viber.  As many refugees exchange information in groups on these messaging platforms, those without access miss out on valuable messages from their community—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—especially when separated by long distances.  Because of technological limitations, refugees have been unable to communicate as groups using SMS, making it difficult to self-organize or to communicate time-sensitive information at any significant scale. Until now.

URBAN REFUGEES will create and distribute SMS Up, a group messaging service that enables users to send SMS messages to multiple recipients using a single mobile phone number.  SMS Up was born one year ago at the 2015 London Hackathon, a collaboration between URBAN REFUGEES and a small group of developers including two from Facebook.  The Hackathon was organized by Techfugees, a global network of tech industry professionals who have come together to devote their talents to finding solutions to the refugee crisis.

SMS Up is a grassroots, easy-to-use service that is designed to meet the needs of the many refugees who do not have a smartphone or an internet connection on their phone.  This innovative tool will enable refugees to:

  • Share time sensitive information: A refugee can notify others when a security issue arises and, when he or she is in need of urgent help.
  • Self-organize easily via SMS: refugees can easily share information on issues such as available services in a city, names of friendly employers, housing opportunities or to coordinate community meetings. It will be particularly useful for refugee CBOs, community-based organizations working on the ground with refugees in cities.  The platform will enable these organizations to more easily communicate with the refugee populations they serve.
  • Easily find support: With just the distribution list name in hand, a refugee can instantly learn where to find assistance by sending an SMS to a whole community.

SMS Up will be part of our Urban Refugee Incubation Program (URIP). The program 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, which impedes them from acting as reliable relays with the humanitarian community. By facilitating the work of CBOs, SMS Up thus indirectly facilitates the work of the humanitarian community with refugees.

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URBAN REFUGEES is a not for profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of urban refugees around the world.  By advocating for alternatives to refugee camps and reinforcing the support structure for urban refugees on the ground, our team operates from the truth that sustainable solutions to the global refugee crisis are possible—and the seeds of these solutions are finding root in refugee communities all around the world.

For more information, visit our website at: or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Elrha is a global initiative dedicated to improving humanitarian outcomes through partnership, research and innovation. Elrha’s programme, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, supports organisations and individuals to identify, nurture and share innovative and scalable solutions to the challenges facing effective humanitarian assistance.  Find out more at or @the_HIF

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