Connectivity and Refugees

October 26th, 2016

unhcr-connectivityWhat role does internet connectivity have on the current refugee crisis? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it’s vital. Refugees are increasingly using technology not only to stay connected with friends and loved ones, but to survive and thrive. Internet and mobile connectivity are critical tools in their daily lives. They are willing to make significant sacrifices to get and stay connected.

Connecting Refugees. It’s time.

UNHCR recently released Connecting Refugees: How Internet and Mobile Connectivity Can Improve Refugee Well-being and Transform Humanitarian Action, a strategic roadmap to ensure that refugees have stable, affordable and accessible internet and mobile connectivity. This connectivity is necessary to help keep refugees safe, learning, and to enhance their well-being and self reliance. UNHCR sees is as crucial for refugee protection, communication, education, health care, self-reliance, community empowerment and other durable solutions.

It’s an ambitious and timely strategy. It acknowledges the breadth of refugees’ digital needs. It also sees opportunities for refugee-serving organizations and governments to better connect, manage and move refugees into more stable circumstances. For Alan Vernon, Lead for UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees Programme, that means both impact and efficiency:  “We see connectivity as key to improving the quality of humanitarian work. It will support innovation and help us work more effectively.

Moving forward successfully means much more than connecting refugees and helping them become digitally literate. UNHCR found that “Facebook, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp are the most popular social networking apps among refugees, and yet UNHCR in particular makes very little use of social media to communicate with them.” In order to serve refugees technically UNHCR and other NGOs also need to ramp up their technical literacy and capacity.

Mobile is key

Currently, cost and access to stable internet connectivity (let alone reliable electricity) is very much a luxury for refugees. Identifying the technology that refugees use now, and meeting needs in that space is also an important part of the strategy.

Refugees primarily connect to the internet on mobile devices, mainly phones. With an ambitious high tech perspective, it’s easy to think that tailoring broadband solutions on devices such as smartphones is the way to go. However, UNHCR notes, “It is important that refugees benefit from all levels of connectivity. For instance,even with a 2G cellular network and access to a basic phone, they can carry out money transactions, access SMS and interactive voice response (IVR) based training, and communicate with their families. Although the ultimate goal is to target broadband speeds and make internet-enabled devices available in order to truly empower refugees, UNHCR will design its interventions so that people can benefit from the full range of available connectivity.”

At their core, UNHCR wants strategic ICT interventions to be usable, available and affordable. Knowing how refugees use, and want to use technology, and designing accordingly is essential. It’s focused on creating and supporting solutions that impact refugee protection, communication, education, health care, self-reliance, and community empowerment.

Think big, start small

UNHCR’s mandate is global and massive. Their proposed strategic approach to technology solutions mirrors that. They recognize that not only governments, but also large private sector actors such as large technology companies and mobile network carriers have an important role to play.

Large tech companies are important for infrastructure and reducing access costs. UNHCR recognizes that partnerships are key– between refugees and host communities, and between governments, civil society and the private sector. In particular, UNHCR is seeking to build strong, multi-faceted partnerships with the technology and telecommunications sectors to ensure that refugees can benefit from the digital advances.

Thinking big is important. It can ensure equitable access to technology, information and services. There is a growing global community of social entrepreneurs and civic technologists in receiving or refugee host countries that align with this perspective.

They are more focused on smaller interventions and solutions. A key strength is their ability to be more nimble. To shift and iterate when they see a solution needs to be tweaked, modified, or abandoned completely. For their successful ideas to have true impact and scale, they need collaboration from larger state, nonprofit, private companies, and refugee actors themselves. A new report from Migration Policy Institute recognizes and highlights the need for increased collaboration among all of these integration innovation actors.

Their small scale interventions and projects that can be tested and then scaled nationally and even internationally if they work. They’re focused on specific solutions to challenges identified by refugee themselves. As a recent Techfugees blog post put it, “Solutions can only be found if we understand refugees’ needs.”

That’s a key strength underlying much of the civic tech approaches. It aligns deeply with the UNHCR’s connectivity strategy. Closer collaboration between civic tech projects and UNHCR could only benefit both, and, ultimately, refugees themselves.

There are many existing projects and ideas that align with the UNHCR strategy, and can help move it forward in its ambitious global strategy. Here are just a few:

Techfugees started as an effort to coordinate an international technology community response to a growing refugee crisis in Europe. It has spread globally. A platform bringing civic tech innovators together with NGOs and refugees, it has five areas of focus: infrastructure, education, identity, health, and inclusion. Techfugees focuses its work in local chapters, cities in receiving or refugee host countries. There, techies work with nonprofits, government and refugees themselves to use technology to solve specific challenges faced by refugees.  Read more.

Refuchat and the Refugee First Response Center
Language and understanding each other is crucial when working with refugees, especially when they’re in crisis. When simple, emergency translation is needed, and where cost is an issue, smartphone app Refuchat can be a useful tool in a first responder’s pocket. It builds on an open source translation project, the Refugee Phrasebook. When funding is available and infrastructure isn’t as much a barrier, Refugee First Response Center is being rolled out as replicable solution to language barriers to primary health care in refugee camps. Both serve a purpose along the same continuum. Both show the value of small and large innovation in response to immediate needs. Read more.

The Clothing Exchange 
The Mes Amis Clothing Exchange is an example of what a community of neighbours can do when they come together with a desire to help refugees. Social media allowed them to organize themselves quickly and develop an effective way to welcome and address the clothing needs of new arrivals to Toronto during Canada’s winter months. While technology wasn’t the point, it facilitated the important work of getting Syrian refugees the clothes they needed, gave interested community volunteers immediate opportunities to contribute and helped raise public awareness of both the refugees’ needs and the incredible community spirit that was being exhibited.   Read more.

Refugees Welcome International 
For asylum seekers, finding a stable and safe place to live is crucial to allowing them to even begin the process of seeking help and moving through the bureaucratic process of applying for protection. In Berlin, a group of friends built a system that connects refugees seeking housing with local residents willing to share their homes. It’s more than simply housing, but also promotes welcoming through the experience of living together. Refugees learn the local language and integrate faster. Locals learn more about their culture and help someone.  Because of a replicable web and technology infrastructure, the original project has rolled out to more than 20 countries.  Read more.

Germany has been generous to refugees making their way into Europe over the past year. But that didn’t mean the structural barriers to employment for refugees got easier. MigrantHire is one of a number of employment projects that’s helping.  It’s ambitious. Over a million refugees recently arrived in Germany. MigrantHire wants to help them integrate into German society as fast as they can. Along the way, they realized that their technology approach filled a gap in local refugee services. Their platform has led to employment for some refugees. It also helped employers, educators and local NGOs tailor services and education programs that can lead to long term labour market wins for everyone involved.   Read more.


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