Anjali Katta was previously an intern at the Innovation Service and supported UNHCR’s Malawi operation for a specific assessment around the information and communication needs of refugees in Dzaleka camp. This is her reflection around the experience and opportunities for connecting refugee communities.
Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi is home to over 35,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. For displaced communities, access to information is the difference between enrolling in e an 8-month coding program and not even knowing where to go when you need help within the camp. It’s the difference between knowing that family members back home are safe and living with uncertainty about the fate of your loved ones. How are refugees and asylum seekers getting this information? Is it enough? Is it trustworthy? How are mobile phones helping with access to this vital information?
To answer these questions, a team from the AppFactory helped pilot a digital survey and interviewed 205 members of the camp over a 4-week period. The questions ranged from participation of activities in the camp to how often people use their phones to communicate and access information. Our research team initially thought that mobile phone penetration and greater access to technology would holistically improve communication and information in the camp. Our assumption was that refugees would use their phones to look up information about their situation, their rights, or communicate with someone who had such access. We also thought that people would trust the information that a friend or WhatsApp group sent them and subsequently pass on the message to their loved ones.
But then we went out into the field.
The reality we found in Dzaleka showed us how challenging communicating and finding information using mobile technology could be for refugees. Although the vast majority of people interviewed said mobile phones were very important to their life, we realized that affordability and trust of information were two key barriers to effective phone use.
What are the barriers to phone use?
Phones are expensive. If you had one before you arrived at Dzaleka you were lucky. If you were given a phone either by a relative or UNHCR you were even luckier. However, even with device ownership out of the way, many still said that buying airtime or data was expensive. Since it is expensive, many simply turn off their phones/avoid using them except when necessary–making people unreachable. Moreover, poor signal interferes with communication on an almost daily basis. One day you can call someone but the next day they won’t have signal and can’t receive a call in return
What information channels do refugees have access to…and trust?
Most of the refugee population in Dzaleka relies on signboards, word of mouth, and radio as their main channels to obtain information in the camp. Radio and signboards channels are directly affiliated with UNHCR and used to inform about general news, announcements, and what’s happening in the camp. 55% percent of respondents said they trusted signboards the most, 10% said radio, and about 15% said UNHCR staff through informal discussion. Although word of mouth from both friends and family and community members (through phones or in person) was the second highest cited source as to receiving information, it drops drastically with only 12% saying that it’s their most trusted source.
When we asked, “Why don’t you trust the information from your phones or from word of mouth”? We heard a lot of refugees say it was because of the fear of misinformation. WhatsApp chain messages are prone to distortion, exaggeration, or pure fiction. A good example of this happened during our survey, when a rumour saying that the survey had something to do with resettling single mothers started to spread, even though our questions were simply about connectivity. I think this made single mother refugees more eager to be interviewed and annoyed others who felt like they weren’t being considered. This general skepticism of information through their community or from WhatsApp makes it hard for even true information to be spread quickly—cellphones aren’t the utopic communication device I imagined them to be!
The way forward
For those who can read, which is a sizable portion of Dzaleka, the most far-reaching and easily accessible of all potential modes of communications are signboards. For those who can’t read, signboards can be at least used to create a map of important services and locations of offices within the camp. According to the community, it would be best to set up more information boards in strategic locations and add maps and pictures as well as translations in different languages to reach different audiences. We also learned that radio was the most effective way to stop rumours from spreading and clarify what is really going on and would be able to spread messages to those who can’t read. However, only 50% of the respondents had some sort of radio access (and it may not be consistent) so efforts to combat misinformation through radio would also rely on increasing radio access in public spaces. Signboards and radio? How innovative is that? Well, sometimes lo-fi solutions can mean hi-fi impact.
As effective as signboards and radio are at providing basic information, they only provide one-way communication (and sometimes top-down too). This, however, does not respond to other needs, such as finding specific information, learning new skills, accessing education or employment opportunities and, more generally, benefitting from being online and connected.
While mobile phones have been said to be democratic tools, they can only be so if access is not limited by the affordability of devices and data, and if consistent coverage is in place. In Dzaleka, as in many other places, you can find a good signal, poor signal, or no signal. How do we start addressing all the factors to improve communication access and that contribute to effective information?
To communicate with communities and help more refugees get online, we need to increase access to information through trusted means and increase access to the internet and remove barriers to usage. To increase access to information, building signboards in more regions of the camp and providing radios to public hotspots, like popular restaurants or stores, could help reach both those who are literate and not. Ensuring that all information is available in the multitude of languages spoken in the camp would also cater to a larger audience and immediately include more people. To get more people online, we could expand currently available Wi-Fi to all parts of the camp or provide data vouchers so refugees could get online in their own phones and throughout the day. Setting up shared device centers or libraries could increase access to even those who currently do not own a cell phone. In these centers, refugees could learn to use a laptop or a phone, how to access information through the internet, and how to use devices to communicate. I leave this experience with a greater appreciation and understanding for multi-faceted programs working in conjunction with each other. There is no miracle device that will solve all communication and information needs—it’s lo-fi, working with more advanced technology, that is needed to come at the issue from all angles.
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