Tech Talks: Refugees and Coding

When you say ‘refugees’ and ‘coding’ in the same sentence, most people don’t see the connection. What do millions of displaced individuals—often fleeing war, discrimination, deprivation, and violence—have to do with the industry that produced Facebook, Lyft, and AirBnB?

Before that question can be answered, we need to look at two things: first, the current statistics related to refugees and displaced persons, as well as the unique set of challenges facing these groups; and second, the present situation of the tech industry and future projections for this field.

According to 2015 statistics produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of those displaced persons, 21.3 million are refugees, which means individuals forced to flee their home country and relocate elsewhere.



The UNHCR has identified three options for what they refer to as ‘durable solutions’ for these refugees – that is, solutions that are long-term, sustainable, and allow refugees to rebuild their lives. The first of these solutions is repatriation – voluntary return to the refugee’s country of origin after the danger (war, famine, political instability, etc) has passed; the second is local integration – this means the refugees settling permanently in their country of first asylum; and the third is resettlement – the relocation of refugees from their country of first asylum to a third country, where they can begin to build a permanent home.

In the UNHCR handbook, ‘Solutions for Refugees,’ it is stated that “access to durable solutions for refugees will be easier if they have been able to become self-reliant pending the identification and establishment of the solution.” What this means is that whatever solution is determined best for an individual refugee, they need to establish self-reliance in order for it to be effective. Self-reliance means that an individual requires access to the local economy – to jobs, education, accommodation, and social services; and this in turn requires refugees to have marketable, transferable skills in order to generate a sustainable income for themselves and their families.

Now I’d like to step away from the refugee situation for a moment and focus on the current situation in the technology sector. The rapid growth of the technology sector in recent years has meant there has also been an increase in demand for skilled workers to fill the jobs created in this sphere. There is a definite need for adaptable workers who learn new skills quickly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that “Employment of software developers is projected to grow 17 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. The main reason for the rapid growth is a large increase in the demand for computer software.”

So how do these two seemingly disparate situations – an overwhelming number of refugees needing self-reliance, and a rapidly growing sector whose growth is outpacing its supply – relate to each other? The answer lies in a solution that benefits refugees, the countries hosting them, and employers in the technology sector: teach refugees to code.

In this scenario, refugees gain a skill that provides them with stability, income, and a sense of belonging and purpose in their new country. For host countries, training refugees in this high-demand skill subverts the all-too-common perception of refugees as a burden on the local economy and public services. And employers gain programmers who are adaptable, dedicated, and committed to learn.

So, how can this solution be put in place? In fact, there are several organizations throughout the world that have already begun to utilize this solution in various ways. Code Your Future (London, UK), Hack Your Future (Amsterdam, Netherlands), Refugees on Rails (Germany, multiple cities), and the Refugee Coding Project (Salt Lake City, UT) are all not-for-profit organizations that teach coding in-person in a boot-camp-style environment. Meanwhile, RE:CODED and Code Door are two organizations who offer remote learning experiences. The former utilizes US-based programmers for instruction to Iraq-based students, while the latter has instructors based in Germany and offers training to students worldwide.

Despite their disparate locations and variety of teaching techniques and programming languages, all of these programs have the same basic model: refugees complete prep courses independently to illustrate their commitment to and understanding of the program; tech professionals volunteer their time to instruct and mentor refugee students; and refugees finish the courses with marketable tech skills that will allow them to enter the job market in whatever country they settle in.


The basic model:

The beauty of this model is that not only can it be duplicated worldwide, it can also be scaled to different needs. Depending on the abilities, numbers, and resources of local populations, it can be implemented on a small or large scale; in a short- or long-term format; and with everything from computer basics to advanced programming techniques.

I am excited to see what transpires as this groundbreaking idea gains traction and momentum in both the tech world and the field of human rights.

If you would like to get to know your local refugee community a bit better, both San Diego Refugee Tutoring and IRC San Diego offer opportunities to volunteer time and skills to assist local refugee families in various ways.

If you would like to find out a bit more about the issues I have mentioned in this post, here are some good places to start:

What is a refugee:

Stats and figures:…

Durable solutions:

Growth in software development:…