Connectivity for Refugees

Connectivity is a lifeline for refugees and their hosts – but it’s one that too many still can’t take for granted.

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

We’re working with partners and with displaced communities to ensure our connected world leaves no one behind.

A transformative initiative

UNHCR, ITU, GSMA, and the Government of Luxembourg are co-convening a Global Refugee Forum pledge to mobilize the expertise, resources, and investment we need to meet our goal of ensuring all major refugee hosting areas have available and affordable connectivity by 2030, advancing the digital inclusion of more than 20 million people forced to flee and their hosts.

Join us! Find out more here and contribute to the pledge here

The realities of providing connectivity in displacement are diverse and contextual. We work toward:

  • 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

We recognize that connectivity and digital technology can be tools for self-reliance and positive change only when internet access is affordable, legal, available to all, and inclusive of displaced and host communities alike.

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 provide 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 and 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.

The digital leisure divide

When actively pursuing connectivity and digital inclusion solutions for forcibly displaced persons, UNHCR has often found that leisure and entertainment are some of the most prominent connectivity use cases. However, very few assessments have dug into these dimensions of connectivity – tending to focus, instead, on more utilitarian use cases.

Our new research on the Digital Leisure Divide and the Forcibly Displaced, produced in partnership with the Erasmus University Rotterdam, seeks to address this gap. It examines how digital technologies are being used by forcibly displaced people for leisure purposes, covering aspects such as entertainment, gaming, sexuality, content creation, community voice, and livelihoods, among others. 

The initial Digital Leisure Divide report presents desk research focusing on the various uses and potential benefits of digital leisure in displacement contexts. These findings are complemented and validated in the second report, which brings together learnings gathered during field research in Boa Vista, Brazil, and showcases the voices of community members.

Download both reports on the Digital Leisure Divide and the Forcibly Displaced below.

Supporting MHPSS through digital tools 

Work on digital inclusion for forcibly displaced and stateless people has long investigated how services for these groups could be enhanced and improved through digital means. UNHCR has started exploring these opportunities in an area that is often difficult for displaced communities – particularly adolescents and young people – to access: mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). 

This new research, conducted by the Innovation Service in collaboration with UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, explores the potential opportunities, benefits, risks, and challenges of using digital tools to support MHPSS services for forcibly displaced and stateless adolescents. It proposes an adapted framework to include the use of digital tools in ongoing approaches, along with practical recommendations. 

The report also includes a checklist for practitioners focusing on one aspect identified as crucial for the success of these interventions: designing them in collaboration with the adolescents they intend to serve.


Find the latest connectivity-related stories from the Innovation Service here.

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A collection of research, insights, and innovations from the field at the crossroads of displacement and connectivity.


What we do, how we do it, and why we do it.

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 at 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.


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.