International Rescue Committee

Leveraging technology to empower refugees: How the International Rescue Committee helps populations in crisis during COVID-19

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    Diana Smith
  • Jun 18, 2020

The nonprofit International Rescue Committee provides critical services to refugees displaced by violence around the world. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the IRC focused on technology and omnichannel outreach to help communicate key information quickly in difficult-to-reach areas.

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“How do you stay indoors if you don’t have a house?" asks Henry Tbilisi, a resettled refugee working to help others during COVID-19.

Henry works as a moderator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s project Signpost, an online platform that delivers vital information to newly arrived refugees. With misinformation threatening people’s safety, Henry is motivated to connect displaced people with trusted information on the virus as well as support services for housing, health care, and racial discrimination.

Henry is just one of many refugees who have stepped up to help their communities during COVID-19. With many refugees in crisis around the globe, IRC as a whole is committed to using technology to scale the number of people the organization can help through the pandemic and beyond.

This year for World Refugee Day on June 20, IRC is highlighting the contributions of refugees on the front lines of COVID-19.

Refugees are essential

The International Rescue Committee provides critical support services to refugees displaced by violence around the world. The nonprofit organization responds to the worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives are impacted by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. In more than 40 countries and in 26 U.S. cities, dedicated teams provide clean water, shelter, health care, education, and empowerment support to refugees and displaced people.

IRC’s message is clear: refugees are essential to their communities. Refugees are doctors, nurses, volunteers, and food distributors. They are stepping up to keep people safe and emerge stronger through the pandemic.

“This year, World Refugee Day comes during the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19. Still, our message about the contributions that refugees make toward society is important now more than ever,” shares Andre Heller, Director of the Signpost Project at the IRC. “Refugees are on the frontlines in healthcare or in essential jobs keeping us safe and keeping our communities strong.”

The impact of COVID-19 on refugees around the world

While refugees are helping keep their communities safe and strong through COVID-19, refugees and displaced people are also disproportionately impacted by the virus and economic fallout. Shelter-in-place requirements impose new difficulties on refugees who have left their homes, need to leave their homes, or are in other crisis situations.

“Refugees, families displaced from their homes, and those living in crisis will be hit the hardest by this outbreak,” said CEO David Milliband. ”Displaced families are often confined to overcrowded camps or cities where a disease like this can spread rapidly through the close-knit population. As the world struggles to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 across its richest nations, the needs of the most vulnerable must not be neglected or forgotten.”

With so many people being impacted by violence, IRC is using technology to scale the reach of its essential humanitarian work.

“Through technology, we’ve been able to see 3x, 5x, 10x higher reach numbers of our work,” said Martha Janicki, Signpost Product Coordinator. “Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to scale seamlessly allowed us to handle a huge influx of need for mental health and information assistance.”

The power of technology to reach those in crisis

Technology and omnichannel outreach has proven a powerful tool for IRC as they engage and serve their constituents during a global pandemic.

IRC provides important health and safety information directly to clients through their and CuentaNos (Signpost) webpages and WhatsApp hotline. The team quickly released health information and regular updates on how the crisis had affected refugee status and applications in impacted countries.

To augment its online webpages, IRC built out a WhatsApp helpline for people who would prefer to chat with a moderator rather than search online.

“We had implemented a cloud contact center for our CuentaNos hotline in Latin America just in time,” said Heller. “When COVID-19 hit, we were already in a position to support displaced people remotely and could quickly adapt the content in the platform to speak to common questions refugees needed answers for around health, mental health in isolation, and changing immigration laws.”

“The ability to use WhatsApp as a channel rather than traditional SMS or email was critical for our program given its ubiquity in Latin America,” Heller added.

Providing health and legal information through the web and chat interfaces gives refugees the power to choose for themselves the best path forward for their families. This information is critical and access to it can be the difference between life and death for families in crisis. Safe access to this information is vital, and the reliability of this information is imperative.

Andre Heller Director of Signpost Project at the IRC

Scaling to meet new demands

From February to June, IRC saw an 800 percent increase in inbound queries to their Twilio-powered hotline for refugees in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

From the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that quick scaling was essential. Janicki shared that “in El Salvador, the lockdown orders were swift and serious.”

“Mental health service providers, social work offices, and most other help centers had to close their doors overnight. The lucky ones had already established an online or phone presence and methodology for handling cases, but many had not.”

She continued, “our solution saw a sudden spike in activity with people messaging us with concerns about mental health, physical safety, and employment opportunities, all of which were severely affected by the pandemic. We were able to seamlessly handle a tripling of traffic. We’ve grateful to be available as a life-saving resource for people in times of their greatest need.”

Through technology, we’ve been able to see 3x, 5x, 10x higher reach numbers of our work. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to scale seamlessly allowed us to handle a huge influx of need for mental health and information assistance.

Martha Janicki Signpost Product Coordinator

How to get involved

If you’re looking for ways to get involved in the fight for refugee rights and IRC’s campaign for World Refugee Day, here are actions you can take:

  • Thank refugee essential workers: Visit to send a personal note thanking refugee essential workers for their courage and contributions.

  • Donate to the IRC: Make a gift to ensure our health teams and humanitarian staff can continue to provide lifesaving care to vulnerable communities around the world.

  • Advocate (if you’re in the U.S.): Honor refugees by commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act and reminding legislators to continue welcoming refugees to the United States. Write to your members of Congress today.

IRC has been able to scale its communications with refugees through Twilio technology. If you’re a nonprofit looking to help more people through SMS, WhatsApp, voice calls, or video, Twilio is here to help.’s Impact Access program provides special benefits, discounts, and technical support to nonprofits using Twilio. Get started here.

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Diana Smith

Diana leads marketing for, working closely with organizations that help millions of people recover from crisis, build better lives through health care and education, and take action to change the world for good.