Techfugees – empowering refugees through innovation

Techfugees is a non-profit that’s established hundreds of projects around the world aimed at improving inclusion and opportunities for displaced individuals. We talk to its CEO about changing the narrative around migration, the need to empower refugees and the benefits of doing so.


Raj Burman is CEO of international non-profit, Techfugees. This social purpose organisation mobilises the digital tech sector and volunteer community to empower displaced inclusion, including refugee digital skills/entrepreneurship, responsible digital innovations and redefining how companies work with displaced people.

Burman joined Techfugees in November 2020, having worked in both the commercial digital technology and social venture spaces. Having worked with refugees in the past, the organisation’s agenda was one very close to his heart.

The Techfugees movement began back in 2015, at the height of the “refugee crisis”. Burman recalls the haunting images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, which are what spurred Techfugee’s founder and TechCrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher to put out a call to action on Facebook. This galvanised technologists around the world to come together and look for ways to help the refugee community, and Techfugees was born.

“We look at innovations that empower inclusion and break down barriers for refugees,” says Burman, “and have a mandate to bring the unheard voices from displaced communities to the forefront. We’re changing the narrative around refugees and showing how they can be a positive contribution to society, rather than a burden.”

Guiding principles

In the beginning Techfugees focused on open innovation events and hackathons, which brought technologists and refugees together.

From these, the organisation was able to gain insights into best practice, what things worked and what didn’t, and developed a set of eight guiding principles to ensure the technology created and the support offered would empower the displaced people they were looking to help. These include focusing on human-centric design, inclusive technology, open-source projects, technology as a tool and sustainability.

Today there are Techfugees chapters all around the world, managed locally, often by the refugees themselves. Since its launch the organisation has developed a pipeline of over 1,000 initiatives, projects and solutions and has learnt which are most valuable to the people on the ground.

Providing opportunities to learn and earn

One of the projects currently exciting Burman is an initiative in Beirut, Lebanon helping to upskill refugees through AI data labelling training.

“This is one of the hottest areas for digital tech night now,” say Burman. “[As part of this initiative] we’re creating a cross-border corridor to international markets that will allow them to apply the skills they’ve learnt. They’ll hopefully be able to work remotely, creating a learn and earn initiative that will allow them to be settled.

“I’m particularly excited as we’ve got a multinational financial institution that’s coming onboard to support this, which we hope to announce soon.”

Another example of Techfugees’ work comes from Africa. Many women based in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Nigeria had been provided vocational training by NGOs and religious organisations, but had no way to use the skills they’d gained.

Techfugees had the idea of developing an e-commerce platform that would enable them to sell the products they’d made online and developed

“These are talented individuals that produce amazing craft products like clothes, bags, pottery and fabrics, but who wants to go into a refugee camp to buy goods?

“We’re helping break down that barrier by enabling them to sell their products online, and were even able to partner with Shopify enabling the women to use the platform without facing fees,” says Burman. “This site is now also being used by people based in other African camps in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.”

Supporting entrepreneurship through trusted connections

Whether by design or necessity, many displaced people are entrepreneurial in nature. However, setting up a new business is tough, full stop, let alone with the extra barriers refugees have to overcome.

One of Techfugees' aims is to provide ‘trusted connections’ for displaced individuals, which in turn enables them to access what they need to improve their quality of life. This may be training, support or access to digital services.

“We’re helping them to ‘level up’,” says Burman, “our community is very much a series of living labs bringing people together. We have these support networks that allow individuals to connect to all these types of opportunities and support throughout the entrepreneurship cycle.

“Not only do the trusted connections help, we get the refugees talking to each other. There’ll be people in Kenya talking to those in Canada, others in Uganda talking to refugees currently in Lebanon. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge sharing, and with that power of ‘collectivity’ they can accelerate their efforts in terms of product or solution innovation that moves the entrepreneurship cycle to another degree.”

The reality of migration

Statistics show that one person gets displaced every four seconds. According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2020 there were 82.4m forcibly displaced people worldwide – that’s more than one percent of humanity.

With the fall of the Afghani government the need to support refugees is making headlines again, however mass migration is a permanent challenge, not a temporary crisis and we must act accordingly.

This includes building scalable, ethical and sustainable tools that support displaced people, but we also need the support of governments and businesses says Burman, and there’s a benefit to them lending their support, as he points out.

“If you look at the economics of migration, its proven that support of displaced people provides an opportunity to uplift GDP and reduce unemployment. Recognise human talent, all that untapped potential.

“We need the policy makers and corporates to really understand that the new order is already in place and look at ways to collaborate and bridge gaps to help the displaced.”

Burman says there’s a need for much greater engagement from the private sector in order to establish more of these ‘international corridors’ that will provide work opportunities for the displaced and enable them to resettle and start – or continue – their career.

In return, businesses will get access to a wider pool of talent that will help them accelerate their own innovations.