Connectivity for Refugees

Introduction

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) believes that displaced populations and communities that host them have the right, and the choice, to be part of a connected society, and have access to technology that enables them to build better futures for themselves, their families and the world.


While the realities of providing connectivity in displacement are diverse and contextual, UNHCR works towards:

  • Inclusion of displaced populations and hosting communities in strategic investments & frameworks

  • Availability of services and affordable access to meaningful internet connectivity

  • Provision of a legal pathways for refugees and displaced persons to access connectivity

  • Connectivity and the digital can be tools for self-reliance and positive change only when internet access is available to all, affordable, legal and inclusive of displaced and host communities alike.

Connecting people and communities

UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees initiative creates safe spaces to experiment with connectivity solutions in the field and works with UNHCR operations to develop local and context specific and community-driven approaches to digital challenges.

An innovative approach

UNHCR Innovation Service’s supports the Connectivity for Refugees initiative through a three-pillar approach that focuses on catalysing connectivity innovations and solutions from the field, using research to have a holistic understanding of the intersections of connectivity and displacement, and capturing bright spots through storytelling and strategic communications.

  • Field experimentation and support
    Inclusion of displaced populations and hosting communities in strategic investments & frameworks
  • Research
    Availability of services and affordable access to meaningful internet connectivity
  • Communications
    Provision of a legal pathways for refugees and displaced persons to access connectivity

Stories

Connectivity for Refugees uses narratives and counter-narratives to move closer to communities, and take a deeper look into the intersections of human and digital. You can find our latest articles here.

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Publications

A collection of research, insights, and innovations from the field at the crossroads of displacement and connectivity to learn how UNHCR navigates challenges and how refugees move in a shared digital space.

FAQs

Connectivity for Refugees: What we do, how we do it, and why we do it. All your questions answered here.

What is Connectivity for Refugees?

Connectivity for Refugees is an initiative by UNHCR’s Innovation Service to ensure displaced populations and communities that host them have the right, and the choice, to be part of a connected society, and have access to technology that enables them to build better futures for themselves, their families, and the world.

What does connectivity mean?

Connectivity is many things at once, all different and all having a vision in common. Connectivity is both building a tower to connect a settlement, and strengthening the capacity of UNHCR operations. It’s providing digital literacy and IT education where it’s needed, it’s identifying access obstacles through research and doing advocacy to remove them, it’s using communications and the power of stories to catalyse change. Connectivity doesn’t mean digitizing the humanitarian response and making all services and assistance to refugees digital, but rather ensuring that digital transformation and the future of a connected society are accessible to all, they are the result of choice, and they are inclusive.

How was the Connectivity for Refugees initiative born?

Connectivity for Refugees started in 2016 with the launch of a research conducted by Accenture Development Partnerships, and an associated Connectivity for Refugees report. This research was commissioned by UNHCR’s Division of Information Systems and Telecommunications, which provides Information and Communications Technology services and support to the organization and enabling communication to all operations. In 2016 the initiative transitioned to the Innovation Service. From 2018, the strategy has evolved based on the experiences and learning and together with the many changes in the digital world and status of connectivity globally.

How can refugees and affected persons be part of this initiative?

The initiative works for refugees and with refugees. Any project that impacts local communities requires their involvement and solutions are designed, tested, and implemented hand in hand with them. We don’t close the feedback loop, but rather keep it open as an ongoing conversation that strives towards improvement.

Why is the Innovation Service working on connectivity?

Because mindset matters and advancing the Connectivity for Refugees agenda doesn’t come without an eagerness to experiment, a hunger for change, a reverence of failures (that is, of what they can teach us), and a healthy desire to challenge the status quo. Our reality, and even more so the digital one, is a fast-paced and dynamic one and in order to succeed we need to incorporate future thinking into our work to understand what the connected society of tomorrow looks like and how it can be harnessed to support refugee protection.

Who is paying for it?

UNHCR helps try and ensure that enabling environments exist and uses resources to experiment with new business models to find sustainable solutions. It is not sustainable for UNHCR to pay for connectivity and this is why partnerships and advocacy with mobile operators and other providers is vital. The initiative has received support from the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

What is the Innovation Service’s role?

The Service sets a direction and through a three pillar strategy (field support and experimentation; strategic communications and storytelling; research) ensures that field operations and UNHCR can deliver Connectivity for Refugees aligning efforts towards common goals. The Service encourages a culture of collaboration and distributed leadership (i.e. leadership that is shared and collective, mobilizing expertise across the organization), highlighting good practices across UNHCR operations globally that foster inclusive and connected environments for refugees and ensure that everyone can benefit from these learnings and approaches.

Why is connectivity important?

Because a lack of connectivity constrains the capacity of refugee communities to organize and empower themselves, cutting off the path to self-reliance. But it also constrains the kind of transformative innovation in humanitarian assistance at a time when such a transformation has never been more necessary.

How can we collaborate/ engage /know more? How can I share an exciting/promising practice?

You get in touch with us here if you think your work aligns with our goals, if you have new ideas on connectivity, or promising practices to share.

Why is UNHCR working on connectivity? Aren’t there other organizations and companies that do that?

Connectivity is a broad field and there are many actors working on different components. UNHCR plays a critical role in designing connectivity solutions with and for refugees, bringing relevant actors (including private sector, humanitarian agencies and governments) together and coordinating interventions that keep refugees’ best interests at heart.

Are you only focusing on refugees?

Connectivity doesn’t stop at borders or ad the edge of a refugee camp. Interventions to bring access to internet benefit refugees and the communities hosting them. The initiative is driven by a “whole of society” approach and its agenda aligns with the local national planning so that investments are done where they are most needed and they include host communities.

Who are you looking to collaborate with?

We cannot create a connected refugee population on our own. Collaboration is key and we seek to build strong, multi-faceted partners – at national, regional and global level – who share our bold and ambitious vision to ensure that all refugees and host populations have access to the internet regardless of their context or situation. Some of these partners might include regulators, telecoms agencies, Mobile Network Operators, governments, civil society and the private sector.

Contact

Are you working in digital connectivity and displacement and you have interesting perspectives to share? Do you have questions or want to support Connectivity for Refugees’ work?

Get in touch at [email protected]

UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees initiative is supported by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.