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Help is literally at hand for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in South Africa

In amongst all the frothing at the mouth about the latest Apple iPhone-this and Samsung Galaxy-that, I do love a good “feature phones change lives story”. So I eagerly joined today’s Cape Town launch of Help@hand, a mobile information service that provides people who are refugees, asylum seekers or migrants with a way to stay informed about their legal rights in South Africa. The USSD-based feature phone service is also a platform to report xenophobic attacks, corruption or unlawful arrests.

Crucially, the first-of-its-kind in South Africa, low-cost service is available in English, Kiswahili, Somali and French, with Oromo due for launch in May.

The service is the brainchild of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), supported by the Praekelt Foundation and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration from the United States.

According to LHR, people who are refugees, asylum seekers or migrants in South Africa face a number of ongoing challenges, including xenophobia, access to basic services such as health facilities and education, as well as experiencing unlawful violations of their constitutional rights. The LHR, which provides free legal services to vulnerable and marginalised people to ensure that their constitutional rights in South Africa are upheld and understood, wanted to increase its impact and looked to technology to do that.

“By integrating ICT we are able to extend the reach of Lawyers for Human Rights and extend our assistance to our partners and clients,” said Kayan Leung, attorney at LHR.

Leung explains the new service, Help@hand, is intended to take the services of the LHR law clinics into regions of the country where it doesn’t have a presence, to avoid people travelling far distances by public transport and taking days off work to resolve fairly simple queries. It also provides accurate information on permits, health, education, unlawful arrest and other rights and services, avoiding time being wasted by people following bad advice.

“We really want to empower users to enforce what their rights are and this is a very simple tool in the palm of your hand where you can access your rights and information, and enforce them,” she said.

The reporting component of the service will channel information on xenophobic attacks, corruption and unlawful arrests to partners such as the African Centre for Migration Studies, who will include the information in its early warning system, set for launch shortly. All information is confidential and verified by a person on the ground. LHR will also start using the data to investigate trends behind the xenophobic attacks. The service is first and foremost an information service, however, and is not intended to be an emergency service.

(If you want a small glimpse into the reality of someone who trying to, amongst violence and other challenges, navigate the home affairs maze while also building a life in South Africa, you should read Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope. In fact, you should read it anyway.)

Development partner, the Praekelt Foundation is no stranger to changing lives through feature phones. For instance, MomConnect, launched in 2014, is a suite of technologies that allows governments and NGOs to improve the health and well-being of new and expectant mothers by creating demand for and improving the supply of maternal health services at a national scale.

Something that is hopefully in the pipeline is negotiating a zero-rating for the mobile content with the operators. In addition, Leung points to the success of providing similar services pre-loaded and zero-rated on a SIM card in other countries.

With tackling the ongoing global refugee crisis as one of the big “to dos” on the planet’s task list, this local service will hopefully solve some very real problems people are experiencing today.

Today’s launch in Cape Town will be followed by launches in Durban and Johannesburg next month.

To access the service, dial *120*8864*1538#

Author | Vanessa Clark

Vanessa Clark
Vanessa is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s been writing about technology since the last century, mostly looking at people, businesses and technology coming together to make something useful and interesting happen. When she’s not deciphering tech-speak, she’s probably running on a mountain... More

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