Research Project

Chatbot to Support Asylum Seekers

In two stages, this joint project between Humans for Rights Network (HfRN) and The Whistle is developing a messaging chatbot for refugees in the UK. First, we are designing and building an information-giving bot which supplies relevant information to asylum-seekers on their rights and living conditions in the UK. Second, we will move into the project’s phase concerned with information-gathering, which seeks to collect reports of human rights violations users have experienced or witnessed in asylum accommodations for use in advocacy and casework.  

Over the summer of 2022, we worked with a wonderful team of volunteer students at the University of Cambridge to gather information on asylum-seekers’ rights in the UK. Phoebe Brown, Amy Burton, Lauren Dooley, Joseph Duffy, Lana Mawlood, Camille McCarthy, and Ella Recheter gathered and produced eight valuable resources to support asylum seekers access to information related to their rights and also on accommodation, health, education and employment, the asylum-seeking process, risk and safety, finances, and daily life and leisure. We are currently working towards translating these into two of the major languages that appear among asylum-seeking populations in the UK: Arabic and Sorani. 

The team was managed by Saide Mobayed, researcher and impact officer at The Whistle, as well as with Dr Ella McPherson, lead of The Whistle, Louis Slater, technologist for The Whistle, and Maddie Harris, director of Humans for Rights Network. 

This project arises from a long-term praxis research relationship between the well-established research project at Cambridge, The Whistle, and Humans for Rights Network, a pioneering organisation led by Maddie Harris that supports refugees in the mitigation of and accountability for abuses, as well as trains volunteers and NGOs to do the same.   

The Whistle, founded with a 2015 ESRC IAA grant and grown through a Horizon 2020 grant, develops digital reporting tools in partnership with organizations working with witnesses – particularly those whose testimonies are traditionally difficult to access – in order to gather evidence for social change. In parallel to the impact of these tools, these collaborations yield rich empirical data gathered through ethnographic methods, with theoretical relevance for the sociologies of knowledge, human rights and technology.  In 2018, we began working with Humans for Rights Network (HfRN) to develop a web-based reporting platform to document abuses against refugees.  The chatbot arose out of the findings during this project, namely that some asylum-seekers, because they access the internet on their phones and rely heavily on messaging apps, are best reached via SMS or WhatsApp.  

Since March 2020, HfRN has been investigating the use of hotels and military barracks to house asylum seekers in the UK. The use of congregated settings run by private contractors is fast becoming the norm. These are institutional settings that for many are experienced like de facto detention, and these accommodations are closed-door facilities.  Asylum-seekers are facing what they have called an ‘information desert’ in these settings with respect to their rights and living conditions, due to the government’s limited and slow provision of information and NGOs’ difficulty with accessing these sites.

Since July 2020, HfRN has listened to over 350 witnesses and assisted over 250 people in accessing justice directly through legal referrals and litigation. The issues that HfRN have uncovered so far include poor food, lack of access to legal advice, risk of violence from right-wing activist groups, deteriorating mental health, abuses perpetrated by staff managing these accommodations, and a lack of oversight.  These testimonies were gathered face-to-face, which is a very difficult endeavour given the restrictions of these institutional settings.  Many more asylum-seekers could be heard and assisted by HfRN and its partners if they could provide testimony remotely on a tool tailored to their available technologies and security context, one which could allow them to provide testimony in their own languages, on their own time and in privacy.  Of course, this digital witnessing project relies on the extensive networks and trust built up between H4RN and asylum-seeker communities.

This project addresses the urgent need not only to provide accurate and timely information to asylum-seekers but also to document and improve refugee conditions in the UK through a partnership that draws both on HfRN’s substantial work and on The Whistle’s experience in developing tools grounded in research. In particular, The Whistle’s process is alive to the need to build technologies from the grassroots, focused on care and solidarity, and with an eye as much to what technology takes away as to what it can provide. 

The messaging chatbot developed in this project will be a pioneering means not only to provide information but also to collect evidence of human rights abuses. It will direct witnesses to answer a series of questions by text, tailored to their situations, and will also connect them to support resources and guide them in best security practices for their phones. The project has three sets of beneficiaries: the end users, namely refugee witnesses themselves; the intermediate users, namely HfRN and its partners; and the community of organisations working for social change who will be able to use this chatbot and customise it to their own projects. This low-tech version of a reporting tool will particularly be useful for engaging communities with less access to technology and other resources, a situation that often maps onto a more extensive experience of abuses and injustice.