New Skype technology keeps UNHCR staff in touch

News Stories, 9 December 2010

© UNHCR Photos
UNHCR Skype

GENEVA, December 9 (UNHCR) Skype Limited has developed a low-bandwidth version of its popular communications software application to connect UNHCR field staff in remote regions with their colleagues, family and friends.

The new technology, created under a landmark partnership between the refugee agency and Skype that could also raise funds for UNHCR operations, has been tested in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. The government of Luxembourg has provided generous financial support for the project.

It is currently available to more than 1,000 UNHCR employees in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda. This reach should grow to almost 2,100 staff by the end of this month and to more than 3,000 by the end of next year. It will eventually be deployed in 120 hardship locations served by UNHCR staff.

"Aid workers such as these are typically separated from their families for months at a time, sometimes with very little notice, and have limited opportunities for communication. In addition, all UNHCR employees have to pay for personal calls," a joint press statement noted.

It explained that the UNHCR-version of Skype "will provide both free and low-cost voice and video calls over the Internet, even when accessed through low connectivity networks. This will enable communications for humanitarian workers in some of the world's most remote postings on the one hand, whilst lowering the cost of calling home on the other."

The partners are looking at ways to develop technology that will benefit refugees more directly, allowing them to contact families and friends overseas and facilitating UNHCR's protection operations, including repatriation, resettlement and family reunification.

"Skype has removed, at a very practical level, some of the most challenging barriers to communications that we experience in these [hardship] locations," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "This will benefit not only UNHCR staff and their families at home but, potentially, the tens of millions of refugees and other displaced people in the world today."

© Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tony Bates, Skype's chief executive officer, said his company was "excited by the future possibilities of this partnership." Skype is contributing financially to UNHCR and will begin a campaign to increase public awareness of UNHCR operations and help raise additional funds. The campaign will initially deliver messages via Skype to connected users, encouraging them to make a donation.

Meanwhile, UNHCR telecoms expert Chris Saxer, who has been involved in the project, said the quality of the service would depend on bandwidth availability. He also noted that UNHCR already operates an organization-wide satellite communications network and this has access to public telephone systems around the world.

"This agreement is targeting staff welfare calls," Saxer said. "It will not affect our current and future partnerships for corporate voice and data communications."

The Skype software application allows people to make voice calls via the internet. It can be downloaded onto computers, mobile phones and other connected devices for free. A stated aim of Skype is to break down barriers to communication.

To donate, please go to www.unhcrskype.org.