Seeking Refuge in the 21st Century

in Program

By Audel Shokohzadeh:

Refugee crises are not new. History is regretfully filled with images of men, women and children fleeing violence and heartache. But in the era of globalization, access to new technology has created new opportunities for refugees to bring stability to their lives and for refugee camps to provide higher quality services. While the use of this technology shows promise — it is also limited by access and connectivity. There is room for new public-private collaborations that better incentivize technical innovation that could aid refugee populations around the globe.  

Refugees exist in a constant state of isolation. After having left the places they called home, many flee to camps that are segregated from the rest of the host country. Isolated, they often turn to social messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to reconnect with family and friends in and outside the camp. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, Connecting Refugees, found that 39% of refugee households have an internet capable mobile device and 32% of refugee households have a basic mobile device.

But the value of mobile technology starts long before arriving at a refugee camp. Many refugees utilize GPS and Google Maps to navigate terrain, relay routes to take or avoid when fleeing war-torn regions. Even various Facebook groups have emerged for refugees to coordinate travel in groups or alone. Websites and apps have been curated for displaced refugees to understand the asylum process, find housing, gain employment, and find lost ones.

For refugees, mobile devices have become a tool to connect in an isolated world.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has begun to use mobile technology and internet connectivity to better provide vital services for refugees. The UNHCR Innovation Lab launched various pilot programs that have utilized SMS to improve communication between UNHCR staff and refugees, social media platforms to communicate with refugees, as well as technology to collect and upload data on services provided. They have also used telehealth technology and Skype to connect refugees with doctors or teachers anywhere in the world.

While initial pilot programs showed promise, three common issues emerged: access to mobile technology, reliable network coverage, and reliable internet connectivity. The Connecting Refugees report, acknowledges this limitation in technology and found a large disconnect in the availability of mobile technology and network coverage between urban refugee populations and rural refugee populations, as the graphic below illustrates.


The same UNHCR report lays out a plan to improve network connectivity and availability. The plan encourages host country governments to make infrastructure investments and create incentives for mobile network operators and internet service providers to expand their networks and provide services at a reasonable cost to refugees. However, if UNHCR faces opposition from the host government, which may view the refugee camp as temporary and the rural region it is located in not worth the investment, UNHCR would consider making the investments itself.

Working to reach refugee populations on devices they already use and trust is a step in the right direction. But, the question is how that best can be done in what are often times crisis situations where resources can be scarce and action by well-intended international institutions can sometimes be less than nimble. Given UNHCR’s limited resources, offering carrots that incentivize action by agile private sector and civil society actors is worth serious consideration.

One idea is for UNHCR to issue a challenge grant open to private businesses, universities, and non-profit organizations with the goal of creating a mobile and Wi-Fi hotspot technology that is energy-efficient and easy to transport and install. Recent successful challenge grants include the Securing Water for Food challenge, which funded an innovative product that provided low-income communities in South Africa with the tools they needed to garden that was cost-effective and environmentally friendly. There are potential private sector partners for UNHCR too. Facebook announced a project to improve internet connectivity at refugee camps in 2015. A challenge grant from UNHCR would support ongoing collaborations and help create the competitive conditions needed to bring out innovative ideas.   

UNHCR has recognized that to successfully utilize new mobile technology, and allow for refugees to utilize mobile technology on their own, refugee camps need to have better network coverage and reliable internet connectivity. There are more issues that need to be addressed and limitations to overcome, but those cannot be tackled until refugees, the camps they are in, and the staff in those camps connect to the rest of the world.

Audel Shokohzadeh is an intern with the Stimson Center and a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. 

[1] United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Connecting Refugees. Geneva, June 2016. Accessed on August 2, 2016.
Photo credit: Internews Europe via Flickr
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