This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2016. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full microsite here.

As exhausted, fearful refugees arrived onto Grecian shores, the very first thing some of them asked for was an Internet connection. To them, water, food and shelter could wait. Letting their loved ones know they had made it to safety could not.

A powerful tool for protection, education, livelihoods and health, connectivity can also make UNHCR operations more efficient, more cost-effective and ultimately more successful. Now a part of UNHCR’s Innovation Service, Connectivity for Refugees is addressing three key challenges: making connectivity available, affordable, and usable. In so doing, it is figuring out ways to bring the digital revolution to displaced people, and to the humanitarians serving them.

“The disruption, the improvement in humanitarian work will take place as…populations of concern are connected because it will enable us to do our work more effectively,” says Alan Vernon, Connectivity for Refugees project lead. “It will enable us to share information more effectively, communicate more effectively, monitor more effectively, plan more effectively, track results more effectively- all of those elements will be brought to bear to enable us to be more effective in the way we work.”

A population desperate to connect

Time and time again, refugees have demonstrated that connectivity is of critical importance to them. Refugees living in Tanzania sacrifice significant portions of their food rations in order to buy data. In the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, people who cannot afford anything beyond their basic needs still walk to the center of camp with a single penny: enough to buy one minute of online time they can use to send a brief Facebook message.

“When refugees are compelled to leave their homes and families are torn asunder, communities get broken, people get split (up), refugees try to stay connected with their families,” Vernon says. They do so in whatever ways they can…So we shouldn’t be surprised. In some ways what’s surprising is that we haven’t focused on this more.”

As the world becomes more and more connected—and dependent upon that connectivity—the humanitarian sector and those it serves have been largely left out.

Globally, refugees are 50 percent less likely than the general population to have an Internet capable phone. While 20 percent of rural refugees have no access to connectivity, urban refugees often have access but cannot afford to get online.

In Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, Congolese and Burundian refugees roamed around with their mobile phones in search of high ground where they might be lucky enough to catch some of the sparse signal wafting in from surrounding host communities.

Syrian refugees transiting Europe had smart phones, but no way of contacting family.

“What we were hearing is that technology is regarded by the people we are here to serve as a need as important as food or clothes,” says Nicholas Kourtzis, Connectivity for Refugees Coordinator for Greece and ex-volunteer as wifi engineer, who calls connectivity a “dignity catalyst.”

He remembers a 75 year-old Syrian man who arrived alone in northern Greece. He did not know if his family, left behind in Turkey, was surviving. . Just ten minutes after WiFi was installed and activated in the camp, the man came up to the technical team to shake their hands.

“Thank you,” he said in gratitude. “You gave me, for the first time in many months, the opportunity to actually talk to my children and my grandchildren and see that they are alive and ok.”

“I don’t care that much if I don’t eat for a day,” another refugee in Lesvos told him, “but I can’t afford to stay without Internet for a day.”

The multiplying effect of connectivity

The benefits to refugees are clear: Getting online is the only way to communicate with family left behind or gone ahead. It’s also one of the best ways for them to access trusted sources of information about the asylum process and its changing procedures.

Being connected also opens up opportunities for entertainment, something Kourtzis thinks should not be overlooked. Especially in crowded, cold sites, he says “people actually need entertainment as a means to make their lives better, to be able to cope more easily with the situation.”

But the benefits start to magnify when value-added services are made available. Many refugees, especially youth, use connectivity to educate themselves—learning a new language, continuing disrupted education, or mastering other skills they hope to put to use wherever their paths may take them.

A connected refugee population can procure energy through pay-as-you-go technology, access health solutions through mobile health applications; create opportunities for entrepreneurship, and smarter farming. Putting appointment management and alerts and updates online could end the time-consuming practice of going around camp with a megaphone or asking refugees to queue for hours for nothing. Instead, they could schedule their own appointments, get notified about disease outbreaks, or send for medical help. When people eventually leave camps, information they find online can make them better informed and prepared.

And as the whole humanitarian system shifts away from providing aid in kind, connectivity is a huge enabler in providing refugees with more control and choice within their life. It enables refugees to take advantage of connected services for their own self-reliance and empowerment. “It treats them as normal human beings, and gives them some dignity back” says Samantha Eisenhauer, Connectivity for Refugees project manager.

Leading an inevitable change

The $25 billion humanitarian sector continues to grow, and yet its way of working has not kept pace with the digital revolution. UNHCR and its own staff will realize the benefits of bringing connectivity to refugees in a host of ways.

“There’s little that we couldn’t do more effectively if we didn’t have both a connected population and the ability to take advantage of even yesterday’s digital technology,” says Vernon. “The reality is that digital technology will infuse every aspect of UNHCR’s work just as it’s infused the vast majority of the ways in which life is carried out in the rest of the world.”

From communicating with communities, protection monitoring, and keeping better track of basic service provision, connectivity only enhances communication, information sharing and efficiency. The ability to collect better data will help UNHCR track, map and analyze issues faster and with more depth.

Moving to mobile money will enable refugees to prioritize their own needs and make choices. “That potentially enables us to use resources that might otherwise be spent on distribution that are freed up to support better education programs or better health programs,” Vernon says. “Information Technology helps us free up resources to where we can focus on the most value-added parts of the humanitarian services that are being provided.”

That’s an important goal, especially since there are more refugees than ever before, and funding is likely to ebb in the coming years.

“How can we be more efficient in order to actually deliver our mandate?” asks Eisenhauer. “If we do not embrace technology at some point, we will end-up being irrelevant, and not stand up to protect refugees as we should.”

“There is no other way to go,” says Kourtzis. “Can you undo smart phones? Can you undo computers? Can you undo the Internet? The world is moving in that direction. The challenge for us as the humanitarian sector, and UNHCR as its leader, is to actually lead this, not be dragged by it.”

UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees

Connectivity for Refugees, which moved under the Innovation Service in 2016, is seeking to address three key challenges: making connectivity available, affordable, and usable.

Though it started in the Information Communications Technologies Division, Vernon says that, “so much of what we want to do in Innovation is tied to having a connected refugee population that it made sense for it to be here.”

In its first year, it opened projects in Jordan, Greece and Tanzania. Activities in Chad, Malawi and Uganda are underway, and Ethiopia and Kenya will follow soon. Open projects have had early successes using connectivity coordinators in the field, who serve as advocates and build relationships with private sector partners, development actors and governments.

Connectivity for Refugees is forging new partnerships and seeking smart investments, with companies from Mobile Network Operators and telecommunications businesses to technology giants like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. But the partnerships are not forged in the typical model.

“We can’t assume that the private sector is waiting to write checks to give us sums of money,” says Vernon. “What they want to do is engage with us. They want to help solve the problem together, they want to apply their expertise and knowledge to the problem with us.”

So far they’re succeeding in doing that, and in connecting thousands of refugees.

In Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp, refugees now benefit from three towers that provide 3G coverage throughout the area. It’s a far cry from the situation just one year ago, when businesses were either completely unaware of the camp or believed it was impossible for refugees to be customers.

Connectivity for Refugees Coordinator for Tanzania, Carolyne Akello says they presented the Tanzanian government with information about the kind of benefits connectivity brings to refuges, demonstrating how it could improve their livelihoods, raise living standards and eventually reduce the burden on donors.

They explained that the host community would also benefit from new towers that would provide them with faster, more reliable connectivity. They took network operators on tours of the camp to impress upon them how vast a customer base they had at their fingertips. It worked, Akello says: the companies were completely overwhelmed at the scale of the 28-kilometer camp that was filling up fast.

Through careful and persistent advocacy, Connectivity for Refugees explained that nearly 133,000 refugees lived in the camp, many for 20 years or more. Those refugees could be customers.

“They had ignored the camp for so long, but suddenly realized they were actually making a lot of business by improving services to the camp,” she says.

Mobile Network Operator Vodacom recovered its investment in less than three months, with its tower saturated with phone calls and a customer base up 200 percent.

One Month after Vodacom built its tower a utilization report showed it was totally saturated at 180,000 calls per day. And more than 250 refugees were operating mobile money services, each one receiving around $150 in commission every month.

“With that, we were able to tell them, ‘refugees are not just receiving, they are contributing,’” Akello says. “If you invest in them, you will be able to get back your money.”

With those improved services and additional towers, some refugees reported they’ve been able to speak with family members who were resettled in the U.S. for the first time.

A lot of refugees are now involved in mobile money entrepreneurship, like running charging stations where people can plug in their phones or selling low-cost internet time at community WiFi stations. Since they’re not allowed to leave the camp, some artisans are even hoping to start using the connectivity to advertise their handicrafts online.

More than 2,000 community health workers may soon have customized training courses that they can take on their phones. Bulk SMS systems may finally replace the outdated and inefficient current method of sending someone to walk around camp making announcements into a microphone.

“The initiative has really brought a lot of transformation,” says Akello. “Refugees have really been able to improve their lifestyle. With the improvement in connectivity a cash transfer program by WFP is being piloted for the first time, since January 2017.”

UNHCR can now easily approach other partners and make the business case that refugees in Tanzania’s other two camps want and need to be connected. And the Tanzania operation will point out another set of potential clients: the 29 humanitarian agencies working in the camps who must currently work offline, and are searching for a more connected solution.

In Greece, a different context necessitated different kinds of partnerships. NGOs, a committed volunteer group, and a state enterprise that provides connectivity to educational and research institutions kept the focus on connectivity instead of profit. Without much of a budget, the coalition managed to connect 56 out of 58 official sites across the country by the end of 2016.

“I really value this partnership because it allows us to have very high quality connectivity to very remote sites where we would have no other means of getting fast connectivity,” says Kourtzis. “And the most important thing is, it’s provided for free.”

Even if it weren’t, Kourtzis says connectivity doesn’t have to be expensive. Which is good, since he views it as essential.

“I think for such an important service as connectivity, which is considered by many as important as food and warm clothes, I think we, as the humanitarian sector, should be willing to undertake on as much of the cost as possible, before moving it on to the refugees, especially in situations where they have to rely on limited or no income” ,” he says.

Bumps on a very promising road

Though connecting the world’s unconnected populations is, by many accounts, inevitable, it is not without its challenges.

Affordability is the biggest obstacle for refugees who don’t have livelihoods. Even those who don’t earn money make a valiant effort and personal sacrifices to get online.

Cost plagues humanitarian actors as well.

“I think the opportunities are really endless and so big,” Akello says. “But of course amidst all this we are facing a number of challenges. That of funding: the need is simply enormous.”

In Greece, Connectivity for Refugees will need to figure out how to move from free service to paid services, and maintain an elaborate and complex infrastructure. And it will need to find solutions to provide better and more accessible connectivity to urban refugees.

In Tanzania, the issue of connectivity is coupled with the challenge of getting reliable electricity, and some Mobile Network Operators still need convincing that the camps aren’t going away anytime soon.

In any operation, Connectivity for Refugees needs to ensure that when connectivity is made available, UNHCR systems are set up to make use of it. “Refugees see the phone as a survival device, but we haven’t built on that because we didn’t see it that way,” says Vernon. “It would be a pity and we should be disappointed in ourselves if we don’t seize the opportunity to change how we operate.”

This year, Connectivity for Refugees will continue to look for ways to enhance access to technology through connected community centers, where refugee and host community students and others can access educational materials, do research and gain computer literacy. It will build relationships with regulators, and advocate for refugees in places where they are not allowed to have phones.

Once current activities are obvious successes, they can think about replicating those models in other countries.

Eisenhauer and Vernon also hope they can increase UNHCR’s recognition of how important connectivity is. Ideally, operations will find their own enthusiasm to work on connectivity even if they do so independently.

“We have creative teams in the field who may not have realized that this was an option,” Vernon says. “We are working hard to liaise with different divisions to help them see the opportunity, and link existing initiatives in a more strategic way.”

“In a few years,” he says, “we won’t be able to imagine how we could operate without having connected contact with these populations.”