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Scottish initiative to help vulnerable refugees more than 6,500 miles away

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A mobile phone app could help save the lives of refugees struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University are working closely with the Rohingya community thousands of miles away in Malaysia.

Many Rohingya people, among the most persecuted people in the world, left genocide in Myanmar and have made a new life in Malaysia.

The app is designed to ensure the community has up to date information and can adhere to Covid-19 reporting rules.

Some of the Rohingya community have been unable to obtain accurate information about the pandemic or have fallen prey to human traffickers.

The Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin received the first dose of the vaccine this week.

The general population are not scheduled to receive the first dose until May 2021 and the refugee community may be later still.

The app has been developed in close partnership with Aspire Penang, which works closely with the refugee community. This has also been created with the support of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

The new Covid app provides information about symptom awareness; what to do if feeling unwell; and who to contact if needing help. The app also allows immediate updates with regard to new local directives or other information relevant to the on-going Covid-19 situation.

The messages are in a range of languages and information is provided in both audio and written formats with maps showing the location of hospitals, clinics and other places to go for help.

Professor Lynne Baillie of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is leading the project in collaboration with Dr Gina Netto, an expert in ethnic minority and refugee communities from the University’s Urban Institute.

Professor Baillie said: “This work is vital to strengthen the support available to a particularly vulnerable group at high risk during the pandemic.

“Refugees in Malaysia face many challenges and the Rohingya people are among the most discriminated in the world.

“As a global university committed to addressing the many challenges faced by different groups during this pandemic, our app is designed to be as accessible as possible.

“It will help to limit the spread of infection as well as supporting refugee women, men and children with clear information on aid and safety systems available.

“Lives can be saved by building understanding about the symptoms and knowing when to seek help, therefore reducing the burden on front line medical workers and potentially overstretched government agencies.”

A spokesperson from Aspire Penang said: “This has been a very positive partnership, with the engagement of the refugee community at the core of the design, development and testing of this app.

“It is a great example of an initiative which not only meets a particular immediate need but uses a methodology which integrates the initiative into the on-going, long-term, community-based work supporting refugee ownership and empowerment.”

The project was funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund, Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Scottish Funding Council.

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