Connectivity for refugees
Over the last 25 years, the internet and mobile communications have transformed life in the industrialized and developing worlds alike. Now that so much information is readily available, we worry about overload more than scarcity. Mobile communications and social media provide abundant ways to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. Cloud computing, remote working and networked global teams are re-shaping the ways we interact and connect.
Not so for the world’s refugees. Today, more than 65 million people – the largest number since the Second World War – are living as refugees or are internally displaced, uprooted from their homes in search of safety, and often struggling to access the basic means of survival.
But displaced people are also living without the connectivity they need to obtain vital information, communicate with loved ones, access basic services and link to the local, national and global communities around them.
The places where they live frequently lack digital networks and infrastructure, or the connectivity available there is too expensive. The digital revolution transforming the world is leaving refugees behind.
One of the key findings of the research is that while 7 per cent of refugee communities lack the requisite digital infrastructure for internet access and mobile communications, most refugees in urban areas live in places that have 2G or 3G mobile coverage. For those in rural areas, however, the situation is far worse, with 20 per cent living in areas with no connectivity. Our assessment also found that refugees often spend up to a third of their disposable income on staying connected – highlighting the main obstacle to refugee connectivity: cost. Globally, refugees are 50 per cent less likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled phone, and 29 per cent of refugee households have no phone at all.
In all discussions between refugees and UNHCR staff, communication with friends and family was identified as the most important need from connectivity. Arguably, this need is greater for refugees than for the general population because displacement often separates refugees from their loved ones and can leave them isolated. Knowing where friends and family are and knowing that they are safe is of paramount importance to refugees.
Living unconnected means making contact and sustaining communication with loved ones is difficult and often impossible. Without access to up-to-date information on the situation back in their home countries and in their countries of asylum, refugees cannot make informed choices about how to improve their lives, or access basic services for health and education. Lack of connectivity constrains the capacity of refugee communities to organize and empower themselves, thus limiting potential for self-reliance and livelihoods.
A connected refugee population can play a critical role in enabling organizations such as UNHCR to innovate effectively and to improve the quality of services that we provide. Connectivity has the potential to transform how we communicate, the way we respond to the protection needs of displaced people, and our delivery of humanitarian services. Most significantly, better connectivity can promote self-reliance by broadening the opportunities for refugees to improve their own lives. Access to the internet and mobile telephone services has the potential to create a powerful multiplier effect, boosting the well-being of refugees and of the communities that host them.
How can UNHCR support?
At UNHCR, we recognize that we cannot create a connected refugee population on our own. Partnerships are key – among refugees and host communities, and among governments, civil society and the private sector. In particular, we seek to build strong, multi-faceted partnerships with the technology and telecommunications sectors to ensure that refugees can benefit from the digital revolution.
We seek to leverage these technologies to strengthen protection, communications, education, health, self-reliance, community empowerment and durable solutions.
Many refugee households buy devices and plans at market rates, particularly in urban areas. This means they often spend a significant proportion of their limited monthly disposable income on connectivity. Our goal is to collaborate with the private sector to provide refugees with pricing models that reduce the cost yet offer some benefit to the companies concerned. Moreover, improving refugees’ access to connectivity means reducing the need to rely so heavily on humanitarian funding.
While the priority is to identify market-based solutions, we recognize that there are groups of extremely vulnerable refugees who could not afford connectivity no matter how low the market price. To support these groups, UNHCR would explore targeted subsidies, as discussed in the Strategic Interventions.
Mobile and internet connectivity has brought the world tremendous economic and social benefits. The time has come for us to work together to extend these benefits to refugees, and other persons of concern.
Three strategic priorities
Our strategy seeks to address the following key challenges: How can reliable connectivity be made available for refugees? How can it be made affordable? How can refugees make the best use of it?
Priority: Network infrastructure and reliable electricity
- Advocate for mobile network operator infrastructure
- Advocate to governments for infrastructure and access
- Advocate to internet service providers and alternative technology companies for infrastructure
- Make targeted investments in infrastructure
Priority: Accessible or subsidized pricing
- Negotiate refugee specific plans and discounts
- Subsidize devices and mobile/internet plans
- Deploy and expand community internet access centres
Priority: Digital literacy, training and access to relevant services
- Develop and implement training programmes
- Enable an ecosystem for digital service delivery
- Facilitate development of refugee relevant content