By UNICEF Innovation

The most crucial item that migrants and refugees carry is a smartphone. Families critically depend on smartphone apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Google Maps to coordinate their journeys. However, they have few opportunities to charge their phones.

On 13 September, three men who are asylum-seekers from the Syrian Arab Republic use a mobile phone to take a ‘selfie’ upon their arrival on the shores of the island of Lesbos, in the North Aegean region. Other asylum-seekers are nearby. Life jackets and other items used on their voyage lie on the shore. By 14 September 2015 in Greece, 288,020 refugees and migrants had arrived by sea since 1 January. They are among the 411,567 refugees and migrants who had arrived in Europe by sea during the same timeframe. One in every four asylum-seekers in Europe so far this year has been a child. A total of 110,000 children sought asylum between January and July – an average of over 18,000 children every month. A significant number of children are travelling unaccompanied or have become separated from their families on the move. As if their current plight were not distressing enough, the vast majority of children seeking refuge in Europe are escaping horrors we can only imagine – half of those arriving in Europe across the Mediterranean Sea so far this year are Syrians. UNICEF estimates that as many as 320,000 refugee and migrant women and children in Europe could be in need of assistance over the next six months. Beyond UNICEF’s deep involvement in responding to the crises in the Syrian Arab Republic and neighbouring countries, UNICEF is active in supporting migrant and refugee children in European countries where it has existing programmes. UNICEF’s action plan focuses on countries with the greatest number of children on the move, including scaling up interventions in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and identifying entry points for support in Austria, Greece, Hungary and Italy; in countries of eventual destination, such as Germany; and countries where new refugee and migrant movements could appear.
On 13 September, three men who are asylum-seekers from the Syrian Arab Republic use a mobile phone to take a ‘selfie’ upon their arrival on the shores of the island of Lesbos, in the North Aegean region. Other asylum-seekers are nearby. Life jackets and other items used on their voyage lie on the shore. Photo: UNICEF/Romenzi

What if a group of unusual suspects, thought-leaders, could come up with a potential solution that could be a game-changer? At the Global Innovations for Children and Youth Summit in Helsinki, Chris Fabian, UNICEF Innovation co-lead and co-founder, made a call to action to think of ways to address the current refugees crisis.

As a result of this call to action, UNICEF Slovenia, UNHCR, Villanova University, Queensland University of Technology, NYU ITP, and partners have teamed up to brainstorm and test possible solutions for people in transit to charge their phones. Connected for the first time over email and across time zones, the group moved quickly through several iterations of charging module designs, mobilizing their respective resources and expertise toward a collaborative prototyping process that can address the immediacy of the need.  

What we know is that the migrant population spends about 5­6 hours in transit through Slovenia. Migrants are going from two entry points at the border with Croatia to two exit points to Austria. The number of people passing through Slovenia per day is anywhere from 200 to 2,000. The migrant population carry cell phone chargers with them so what they need is recharging capability.

One possibility that was discussed is 3D printed plastic charging modules specifically designed for the purpose of charging hundreds of phones at once. A big advantage of 3D printing is that the modules can be put together relatively quickly and at a low cost. Cool features like weather­proofing, robustness, and branding could be built-in. Another advantage: the ability to 3D print the plastic charging modules locally would save shipping costs.

3D printed muticharger
3D printed mobile phone charger proposal from the Queensland University of Technology. Illustration: Queensland University of Technology.

The team has also discussed alternative solutions that involve mobile charging units rather than fixed ones. For example, solar or hand­held chargers that use electrical sources on the train. Another option is supplying  portable batteries that families can use on the train and can be shipped back as the train returns to the entry point. An advantage of these approaches is security. Hundreds of people looking to plug in their smartphones to fixed charging points could quickly turn into a chaotic scene.

What’s next

Villanova University is volunteering to serve as the interface for the testing of prototype solutions and submitting them to UNICEF Slovenia for field trials.

Rather than building a solution for tens of thousands of refugees, the idea is to test out an affordable system that can be built and fielded to help 20 to 150 people at a time. This will help people in transit to gain access to charging their phones. And, it will also provide valuable information that can be used in designing  larger scale systems.

Villanova will receive the systems; test them in the lab; review and, if needed, improve the documentation; send the systems to Slovenia for testing, and follow up on the tests. Villanova will collect information and relay feedback to the people trying to design the solutions.

Latest update

  • On January 16, 2016  Slovenia and UNICEF signed a partnership for refugee and migrant children on the move. UNICEF and Slovenia will establish child- and family-friendly spaces, which will provide safe areas for children to rest, engage in learning activities, and receive psychosocial first aid, information and other social support as needed. These are spaces which are heated and where children are provided with warm clothes, shoes and blankets. The Child-Friendly Spaces will be the first step towards a Children and Family Support Hub that allows UNICEF, in partnership with UNHCR and the Red Cross Movement, to offer more integrated services and protection to families on the move.
  • As of this semester, two Villanova students will work on a prototype train charging unit. The students are being supervised by Prof. Edmond Dougherty.

Watch this space for more.