Humanitarian Action

How cloud technology is helping migrants stay safe during the pandemic

This child has just returned home to Dili aboard the ""Lambelu" which was chartered by the IOM, October-November 1999.

Image: UNPhoto

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Humanitarian Action

  • Measures to control COVID-19 have created new difficulties for vulnerable migrants and internally displaced people living in congested sites with limited access to water and sanitation facilities.
  • The ability to gather, process and analyse large amounts of data from a variety of print and online sources is increasingly important to the International Organization for Migration – now more so than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic forces it to rapidly increase the scale and scope of its work.
  • IOM is working with Amazon Web Services to scale up the services it provides to migrants worldwide.

COVID-19 has led to huge challenges for the world’s mobile populations – the millions of people who move between countries and regions looking for better opportunities, to escape disaster or unrest, or because they have been displaced.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since the COVID-19 outbreak began, more than 227 countries, territories or areas worldwide have imposed more than 117, 011 travel and mobility restrictions, as of 29 March 2021.

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While these measures are designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, they have also created new difficulties for groups such as vulnerable Ethiopian migrants stranded in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf, and internally displaced people living in congested sites with limited access to water and sanitation facilities. These measures have also impacted groups not previously considered vulnerable, such as students, seasonal workers and families trying to travel home.

Image: International Organization for Migration

Data for critical decision-making

The IOM, the world’s leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and an Amazon Web Services (AWS) customer, works to ensure the orderly and humane management of migration. This includes giving humanitarian assistance – such as help with travel, medical aid and vocational training – to migrants who wish to return home, as well as providing stakeholders such as the United Nations, governments and migrants themselves with timely and accurate information on migration. This information can be anything from immigration and emigration statistics, to data on human trafficking, and much more.

The ability to gather, process and analyse large amounts of data from a variety of print and online sources is increasingly important to the IOM – now more so than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic forces it to rapidly increase the scale and scope of its work.

AWS first teamed up with the IOM in 2019 to help it build a data lake using cloud technology. This essentially enables the IOM to put all its knowledge – previously stored in a variety of different systems – in one place, in the same format, in order to analyse it more effectively.

This in turn allows it to provide its stakeholders with more timely and accurate data required to produce insights to make critical decisions, whether that’s reducing the time it takes to transform raw data into usable information, or enabling certain stakeholders to find the data they need more quickly.

Now, AWS is providing additional services and technical expertise to support the IOM in accelerating its response to the pandemic.

Vulnerable and stranded populations

“The IOM is focused on the links between humanitarian relief, migration and development, helping governments to facilitate regular migration, and addressing issues such as forced migration, or the gender, health and labour rights aspects of migration,” explains Jeffrey Labovitz, Director for Operations and Emergencies at the IOM. “That means we directly manage camps for displaced people in conflict areas, for example coordinating water, food and aid delivery.”

In 2019, the IOM provided services including site construction and maintenance, water, sanitation and hygiene services, and provision of shelter in more than 1,100 displacement sites across 23 countries, reaching 2.4 million people displaced from conflict or disasters.

“Our work reaches a variety of groups of people on the move – ranging from migrant workers to ‘internally displaced persons’, or IDPs,” says Labovitz. “When you see large groups of people moving across borders, into countries like Libya or Yemen for example, we will support them with basic services on their route. We also help people who are stranded in dangerous countries to return home.”

The data lake the IOM has built on AWS consolidates the knowledge that the organisation has gathered and continues to gather on the multitude of factors influencing migrants’ ability to make a safe journey across countries, with topics including migrant rights, gender and health status, and public opinion on migration.

By bringing together information from different databases, archives and print sources into the data lake, the IOM has been able to run analyses on the information exponentially faster than before.

Over the long term, this will not only improve information sharing within the IOM itself – cutting down the time it takes to identify the locations, situations and needs of migrants in vulnerable situations – it should also enable the organization to predict future migration patterns, which could help with resource allocation and preparedness planning for disasters like COVID-19.

“Global mobility and the spread of the coronavirus are intrinsically linked… Mapping global movements is a remarkably visual way to understand how the virus might be spreading.”

Jeffrey Labovitz, Director for Operations and Emergencies, IOM

Labovitz says that before the pandemic, at least 55 countries around the world were already experiencing a humanitarian crisis. “There is now an increased risk among the most vulnerable populations due to COVID-19,” he explains. “You can imagine the challenges in an overcrowded place like an IDP or refugee camp, with poor sanitation and malnutrition.”

Ear on the ground

One of the ways the IOM is able to understand how people are displaced by conflict or disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic is with its Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM).

In addition to analysing primary data gathered by the IOM’s in-country teams on the ground, the DTM monitors secondary data in the form of information about migration published daily by worldwide media, whether that’s online, in print or in real time on social media.

On a typical day there will be thousands of individual stories, which may not necessarily all be covered by the big international news outlets. For example, a local Arabic language news site may run a piece on the status of migrant workers in a particular Gulf state, but this won’t necessarily be picked up outside of a certain number of countries.

This is where AWS technology comes in. Whereas in the past IOM staff had to manually search for these articles online, AWS is helping the organization gather information in real time and simplify it into ‘actionable items’. That means automatically capturing the most relevant articles, summarising them and packaging them in a report three times per day.

This allows the IOM to have an extra ‘ear on the ground’, to learn about people movements from rapid, real-time sources, which complement its existing internal reporting mechanisms.

AWS has helped the IOM expand the DTM so it now monitors information from 160 countries – double the number than before the outbreak of COVID-19. “AWS has enabled us to work better and faster in a time of crisis,” explains Nuno Nunes, Global DTM Co-ordinator for the IOM. “We can share critical information on the mobility, vulnerabilities and needs of displaced and mobile populations with decision-makers and responders – including a live, visualised map of mobility at national and international level.”

Expanding capacity to respond

Since the pandemic began, the DTM website has seen a surge in traffic. Migrants in the UK, for example, were searching for urgent information on how to receive support for themselves and their loved ones affected by the mobility restrictions and broader lockdown measures imposed to curb the spread of the virus. The number of enquiries to IOM UK’s phone lines, as well as requests for information in multiple languages, increased rapidly.

In response to this need, IOM UK initially developed a multilingual website to consolidate information from various government and non-government sources on key themes of importance to migrants. AWS has since helped it set up a virtual call centre in the cloud, to provide rapid capacity to manage enquiries in any language.

“We identified the need to have direct conversations with migrants that went beyond the information available online,” says Ottmar Figueroa, ICT Policy and Governance Officer, who is also the ICT Division’s Data & Analytics Leader. “We integrated Amazon Connect with our IOM UK COVID-19 Migrant Information website, providing a toll-free number that connects migrants to multilingual agents. The call centre is entirely cloud-based, allowing us to connect and forward calls at around 15 times the capacity we had previously – at a very low cost.”


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Beyond the crisis

The team at IOM believe that working with AWS has potential to change how the organization operates in the long term and is already exploring new projects. For example, enhancing the IOM’s ability to communicate with migrants has in turn changed migrants’ role in the process, from passive users to active participants.

“The people we assist through our technology portfolio are now active stakeholders, who can provide feedback and make suggestions by approaching us collaboratively,” says Figueroa. “Our solutions are no longer only providing organizations and individuals with data; we can be more proactive in knitting together contacts, information and solutions for people.”

As the nature of migration continues to change, the cloud is proving integral to the IOM’s ability to meet the needs of an increasingly expanded audience. And in a connected, globalised world with huge population growth, the IOM anticipates that the value and application of cloud technology in helping to monitor and understand migration flow in times of crisis, and beyond, will only continue to grow.

“We knew the warning signs for this kind pandemic were always there,” Labovitz explains. “Now, with AWS technology, we’re in a much better position to plan for the next one.”

Find out more about how Amazon is supporting its employees, helping customers, aiding community relief, and furthering research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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