Q&A

Q: Can REFUNITE help with physical reunification?
No. Physical reunification is not the mandate of REFUNITE. REFUNITE only provides an online and mobile-enabled platform for displaced people to take the search for missing family into their own hands. For physical reunification, REFUNITE refers people to the local Red Cross Society, UNHCR, ICRC or the local authorities.

Q: Does REFUNITE have any political or religious affiliations?
No. REFUNITE has no political or religious affiliations whatsoever.

Q: How does REFUNITE benefit from this project?
REFUNITE is a nonprofit. We benefit by helping to build a better, more connected world. We have seen firsthand the unnecessary hardship many refugees and forcibly displaced people endure to find their loved ones. Through our low-tech solutions, which we are striving to make more and more available via our growing network of mobile network operating partners, our goal is to provide access to family tracing for anyone in need.

Q: Who is behind REFUNITE?
REFUNITE was founded by two brothers, David and Christopher Mikkelsen. The main office is located in Copenhagen, Denmark, and is supported by a small team of dedicated staff. REFUNITE also has an office in Nairobi, Kenya, that serves as a hub for all of our on-ground operations in East Africa as well as our core tech development.

Q: How many staff members do you have?
We employ about 25 direct staff members – from different countries and with different professional and academic backgrounds (i.e. former employees of tech and mobile operator companies, nonprofit organizations, United Nations agencies, and startups).

ABOUT THE REFUNITE PLATFORM

Q: Is the service free?
Yes – it is free to search and register via www.refunite.org. Below please find a detailed response:

Searching via refunite.org:
It is free to search, connect and communicate through refunite.org.
Normal costs to access the Internet, either via mobile phone or computer, still apply.

Searching via USSD (our mobile search tool):
It is free to search, connect and communicate via our USSD mobile application as a subscriber of one of REFUNITE’s mobile network operating partners.

Q: How many languages is the REFUNITE service is available in?
REFUNITE is constantly adding new languages to the platform, with its web service currently being available in twelve languages, including English, Swahili, Somali, Arabic, French, Congolese Swahili, Hindi, Urdu, Pashto, Kurdish, Dari, and Tagalog.

Q: How many users do you have on the platform?
We currently have over 680,000 profiles on the platform. This number changes all the time as we continue to clean our data and register new users.

Q: Will it ever cost money to register or search?
No. The REFUNITE platform is free of charge. Internet or airtime charges may apply, depending on the country.

Q: Do you have to be a refugee to use the REFUNITE platform?
No. Anyone who is searching for a missing loved one can use our service. It does not matter if you are a refugee, an internally displaced person, or just someone separated from a loved one. Every person who is looking for missing family, whether touched by conflict, disaster or other uprooting factors, can utilize our service.

Q: Can I only search for family through refunite.org?
No. The REFUNITE platform lets you search for friends, loved ones, relatives and anyone else you would like to reconnect with.

Q: How is REFUNITE funded?
REFUNITE is funded by donations from foundations, corporations, and private individuals. We receive no government funding and only accept unconditional donations. Independence remains a top priority. You can see a list of some of our most important partners here.

 

Q: What is REFUNITE’s relationship to other NGOs?

We consider ourselves a mobile search tool to be used by other NGOs as well as refugees and forcibly displaced people. A global, online and mobile platform for people searching for missing loved ones is a simple solution to a complicated problem. But in order to build this platform, it is important that we partner with other organizations working towards the same goal.

Q: What makes REFUNITE different from other family tracing agencies?
We empower refugees to take the search for missing loved ones into their own hands. With our search tool, refugees and displaced people do not need to consult with any agencies first but are able to search a complete database themselves from the privacy of their own home. There are no forms to fill in and no waiting lists. The power of the search is entirely in the hands of the user.

REFUGEE PROTECTION

Q: What kinds of steps have you gone through to ensure that the database is safe for refugees?

Since 2008, REFUNITE has continued to modify the platform and implement new features to protect refugees and registered users. Technology is constantly evolving, with new features added all the time. It is our duty to ensure that we continue to protect refugees and vulnerable people in this process. It is beyond this document to list all the initiatives, on-the-ground consultations and privacy and risk assessment workshops REFUNITE has run since 2006. Below are highlighted initiatives, which can be expanded upon request:

  • Embedding design and coding with a strong emphasis on security is at the forefront of REFUNITE’s development
  • Together with Ericsson, we perform Security and Risk Assessments, which aim to determine the security of the REFUNITE family-tracing platform.
  • Before entering refugee camps and refugee prone areas, we always consult UNHCR. Different rules, standards and guidelines apply in different countries.

Q: Which formal procedures are in place to safeguard the information handling process (from collection to exchange and archiving or destruction)?

There is no archiving – everything is digital for this very reason: we don’t want uncontrolled, physical evidence accessible to anyone.

 Q: What happens in case of misuse of data? Who is your watchdog?

All REFUNITE’s data is hosted by Amazon Web Services in Germany. We benefit from the German Data Protection Law which is compliant with the EU Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC) and even beyond, since Germany has taken additional measures in terms of data protection by introducing comprehensive legislation on computer crime, modern e-commerce laws and regulations on electronic signatures, along with low latency, stricter data privacy laws and compliance to increase users control of their own data.

Q: What is your refugee protection policy? 

We are constantly monitoring and adapting to meet new international guidelines pertaining to refugee protection, i.e. following documents such as the recently published document Professional Standards for Protection Work by ICRC (2013.) We do not see refugee protection and technology as two different things. We always consult local UN agencies and local refugee protection officers before launching new projects. In line with the ICRC guidelines, we see it as our duty to:

  • Stay up-to-date on new literature and international guidelines pertaining to refugee protection, i.e. documents by ICRC.
  • Continue to handle information containing personal details in accordance with relevant regional or national laws on individual data protection.
  • Continue to assess threats to the persons providing information, and to take necessary measures to avoid negative consequences for those from whom they are seeking information. As an example, we have developed close working relationships with UN protection officers in Kakuma and Dadaab over the years. We continue to consult them on a case-by-case basis.
  • Continue to offer our software for free to UN entities and reliable nonprofit organizations, thereby empowering them to register families in their local areas. In line with ICRC’s guidelines, we try avoid duplicating information collection efforts, in order to avoid unnecessary burdens and risks for victims, witnesses and communities.
  • Continue to explain and secure informed consent when calling upon the general public to register on the REFUNITE platform.
  • Continue to systematically review the information collected in order to confirm that it is reliable, accurate, and updated.
  • Continue to ensure that personal consent is obtained before contacting people through www.refunite.org;
  • Continue to ensure that personal information is not disclosed or transferred for purposes other than those for which they were originally collected, and for which the consent was given.
  • Continue to familiarize ourselves with the risks and advantages linked to new technologies and methodologies.

Q: How can users reclaim, modify or delete the data they have submitted?

To ensure that users have control of the data they submit online, we make it easy for users to delete and/or modify data. This can be done by the users themselves via their personal profile.

Q: You deal with vulnerable populations who are often semi-literate or have no experience with technology – how do you ensure that they understand the complex nature of making personal information available on the Internet? 

  • If a user signs up personally through the web or mobile phones, it is because they have understood the tech premises of REFUNITE. We ensure that they verify they have read and understood the Terms of Use and potential challenges of using the REFUNITE platform. We obviously cannot guarantee whether they have actually read through the terms or not.
  • If a user is signed up by an on-ground partner, they are informed prior to signing up about the nature of the project, the data collected and how it is used.
  • We allow users to register with nicknames, pet names, aliases, etc.
  • We allow users to provide specific information that only family and friends will know
  • We ensure that no field – such as clan, location, city of origin, etc. – is required for registration so that users may leave blank anything they do not wish to share
  • We ensure that email address, phone number, and location are never displayed to other users of the platform.

 MANAGING SENSITIVE DATA

Q: What kinds of information does someone need to provide to create an account? 

All information is voluntary, however:

To enhance chances of finding missing loved ones, we ask for the following information:

  • Full Name
  • Name of the person that is missing
  • Country code and mobile number (hidden)
  • Age (we ask of potential users to confirm that they are 18 or above). You cannot register an age below 18 for child protection reasons. While this doesn’t ensure someone below 18 registering with a false age anyway, it ensures a potential predator cannot filter for age and seek out minors.

At REFUNITE, we strongly believe that the user is the best judge as to the amount of information they share. We also believe that it is our responsibility to make clear to users that information submitted into their public profile, with the exception of their mobile phone number, email address and username (which are always hidden), can be viewed by the public.

REFUNITE lets people register with only the amount of information they choose to and feel comfortable registering with. It is possible to register anonymously without giving out a full name, address or any other potentially sensitive information. For example, it is possible to register with initials, village of origin and date of birth, or other markers only identifiable to family and close friends.

The tool will never ask a user to disclose current location. Below is a list of voluntary information users can provide.

  • Full Name
  • Other name
  • Nickname
  • E-mail
  • Previous or old phone number
  • Gender
  • Age
  • City of birth
  • Tribe
  • Country of Birth
  • Clan & sub-clan
  • Mother’s name
  • Other information (e.g. birth marks, scars, school)
  • Preferred language

Q: Is it possible to register on behalf of others?

Yes, it is possible to register on behalf of someone else. However, we kindly ask that you only do so if he or she is unable to register on his or her own due to lack of literacy, understanding of technology or another valid reason. You must have full consent of the person, and have explained to them what REFUNITE is.

Bear in mind that registering a profile on REFUNITE means that his or her personal information becomes publicly available. Also remember that you MUST register with a working mobile phone number/e-mail address and check your inbox for messages regularly or they will not know if someone in his or her family has found them. Lastly, you must not use our website in any way which is unlawful, illegal, fraudulent or harmful, or in connection with any unlawful, illegal, fraudulent or harmful purpose or activity.

Q: Is there any age limit to registering?

At REFUNITE we ask children under 18 years of age not to register. This is to protect minors and keep anyone from being able to search specifically for the most vulnerable.

Q: What happens if someone claiming to be a relative contacts a refugee? 

If someone contacts a user, we urge them to ensure that this person is in fact the person they claim to be. Users can do this by asking questions that only this person could answer. If the person provides the correct answers, it is up to the user to judge whether they feel comfortable about giving out further contact information on whereabouts and ways to get in contact.

The person contacting a user will only be able to see the information they have given for registration as well as any person(s) they have registered as missing. No one can find out anything about a user’s physical location unless they have made these details available through messages.

SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE

The system architecture of REFUNITE is built in a modular structure. By maintaining the system architecture into isolated modules, REFUNITE can, in case of an attack, secure the databases and system entry points swiftly and efficiently before any breach is achieved. Below is an explanation and illustration of our system architecture:

API: All REFUNITE applications are designed to work around the API. The entire documentation found here.

PRIVACY

Q: Who owns your data? 

We, REFUNITE, manage all data, while users are fully able to delete or modify their data.

Q: Does REFUNITE share the information from the database with anyone else?

No. Only the information users choose to make available will be visible in the search engine. Also, if users engage in a mail correspondence, only the receiver and the user will have access to the messages.

Working with selected partners, e.g. mobile network operators, to provide our service free of charge in some countries entails collaborating through an API. There may be situations where partners have access to personally identifiable information gained from users usage of the site, such as a users mobile phone number. REFUNITE works to ensure that any third party is not misusing information being transferred between our system and end-users through strict non-disclosure agreements.

Q: Who reads the messages? 

Communication between site users is managed in a secure closed-circuit message system, which allows people to share additional information on a person-to-person basis if they so choose. Content is analyzed automatically to filter for misuse of platform.

Q: How is the information used by REFUNITE?

In order to secure the best possible search, REFUNITE logs all user data. However, phone numbers appear encrypted even to REFUNITE staff.

Q: How secure is the system?

All REFUNITE’s data is hosted by Amazon Web Services in Germany. We benefit from the German Data Protection Law which is compliant with the EU Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC) and even beyond, since Germany has taken additional measures in terms of data protection by introducing comprehensive legislation on computer crime, modern e-commerce laws and regulations on electronic signatures, along with low latency, stricter data privacy laws and compliance to increase users control of their own data.Access to the sensitive data stored in our database is only delegated to few selected employees of REFUNITE, who are operating under strict NDA agreements.

Q: What about your staff members – do they have access to data? 

In order to secure the best possible search and matching system, and thereby provide the best possible service, REFUNITE logs all user data. Technical staff with access to this data is working under strict NDA agreements. Also, REFUNITE works with data analysts and specialists in order to continue to improve the system. These are also working under strict NDA agreements. Furthermore laptops containing sensitive data are encrypted to prevent anyone but the owner of the laptop to access the data. REFUNITE will never sell personal information.

Q: Is it possible to opt out of future communications?

Should users receive unwanted messages from other users, use the ‘report abuse’ or ‘block user’ functions when receiving a message at www.refunite.org. For general information around using our service, please refer to our TERMS OF USE.