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Program allows African refugees to reconnect with missing kin via text

By Faith Karimi, CNN
  • The program to reconnect missing loved ones targets refugees and displaced people
  • Once the information is put in a database, it is accessible to refugees and aid agencies
  • The pilot program will be conducted in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan this year

(CNN) -- Eadya Julia fled her native southern Sudan nearly three decades ago at the height of a war between the south and the north.

"For more than three years, we kept running from one place to another," said Julia, who lives at a refugee camp in northern Uganda.

During the movement, her oldest son was separated from them and joined a group running in the opposite direction.

He was 4 at the time. They have not seen him since.

A pilot program to reconnect missing loved ones targets refugees like Julia, whose story is a norm in camps across Uganda.

"Like Facebook .... it enables refugees to use mobile phones to register themselves with their profiles, search for loved ones and subsequently reconnect via an anonymous database, using SMS or mobile Internet," said Christopher Mikkelsen, director of Refugee United. "The mobile phone refugee family locating program aims to outfit UNHCR and other NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] with a collaborative tool as well as empower refugees."

Mobile phone companies MTN and Ericsson have teamed up to provide free cell phones to Sudanese living in select refugee camps in Uganda, said Adem Sumertas, the country manager for Ericsson.

In addition to the phones, MTN has provided a toll-free number for refugees to access a questionnaire and create profiles into a database.

Once the refugees and other displaced people are registered in a central database, the information is accessible to refugees and aid agencies, experts said.

Refugee United will also provide the service via computers online, said Simon Kaheru, a publicist for MTN Uganda.

Julia said the service gives her hope that her oldest son will be found.

"Much as we are alive with his brothers, sisters and dad after many years on the run, I believe, he too is alive," she said. "I do not want to think he died."

The pilot program will be conducted in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan this year -- with plans to expand in other countries with larger refugee populations.

Providing the service will take a lot of team work, said Mwambu Wanendeya, a vice president at Ericsson.

"Refugee United will create, maintain and update the database; while Ericsson will provide the mobile applications, technology and system integration to enable the application in mobile networks," Wanendeya said.

Phone companies such as MTN will host and offer the service in their networks, while the United Nations refugee agency will jump-start the program in Kenya and Uganda, according to Wanendeya.

The program will empower refugees and aid groups in their search for missing relatives, experts said.

It will also fill a gap left by traditional search methods.

Currently, searches are limited to the use of aid agencies operating in various refugee and displaced peoples' camps.

"Part of the justification for the project is the amount of time a person ... spends traveling between camps looking for loved ones is eight to 12 years," Kaheru said.

Africa's cell phone market is booming, and most people even in poor neighborhoods have access to one.

In contrast, only 2 percent of people in Africa have direct access to computers, making the service via mobile phones highly relevant," Kaheru said.

Aid agencies have started the drive to register refugees.

"The success rate of this pilot project here and in Kenya will determine how fast it can be rolled out to the rest of the world," Sumertas said.