By Jenny Casswell and Keeya-Lee Ayre

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study published today highlights that forced displacement is at a record high, with 68.5 million people driven from their homes by the end of 2017. Yet, there is optimism that digital solutions and the ubiquity and pace of growth of mobile technology can benefit the lives of refugees in a multitude of ways.

According to UNHCR, roughly 93 per cent of refugees live in areas that are covered by at least a 2G network and 62 per cent are living in areas covered by 3G networks. Today on World Refugee Day, here are just five of the many ways that mobile is a lifeline for refugees and displaced people around the globe.

  1. Connecting with family and friends

Our research in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania showed that 96 per cent of phone users make calls to friends and family members living in the camp and 81 per cent call friends and family outside of the camp. Refugees are using social media to find missing loved ones; connect with friends and family; relay news and information; and as a safety net during emergencies. High demand for communication is the result of the unique and challenging circumstances that refugees find themselves in, with many Congolese refugees having lived in the camp for more than 20 years and mobile connectivity being one of the few ways they can communicate with loved ones.

  1. Humanitarian cash transfers and mobile financial services

GSMA data shows that 37 markets have ten times as many registered mobile money agents as they have bank branches. With 85 per cent of refugees living in developing countries, where mobile money networks are more likely to exceed the strength and prevalence of banking infrastructure, mobile money can be the most efficient delivery mechanism for cash aid. Although operational challenges remain, if deployed effectively, cash transfers via mobile money can deliver benefits to the humanitarian sector, including traceability, efficiency, timeliness and cost-effective delivery of aid as demonstrated in GSMA research in northern Uganda. Furthermore, where refugees and displaced people have access to a mobile money account, humanitarian cash transfers can stimulate local economic growth and help build empowerment and resilience by giving users access to a broad suite of digital financial services, including savings and lending, utility bill payments, government service payments, and remittances.

  1. Education

In 2016, the Vodafone Foundation launched its ‘connected classrooms’ project in six schools in Nyarugusu, providing a Wi-Fi connection, projector and tablet devices for teachers and children. In addition, 28 per cent of surveyed adult internet users in Nyarugusu are using their phones to access informal education opportunities, including language learning and further education. Reduced smartphone costs, enhanced internet connectivity and digital literacy training, and the development of accessible, user-friendly applications has the potential to offer far-reaching benefits to refugee populations in terms of education, information and opportunities. MNOs and humanitarian agencies can work together to use digital technology to meet the growing demand for digital education services.

  1. Mobile-enabled utilities

Energy, water, sanitation and hygiene services are critical needs for forcibly displaced people. According to Chatham House Moving Energy Initiatives, in camps, only 11 per cent of refugees have access to reliable energy sources for lighting. Recent GSMA research in Tanzania highlighted that one of the key barriers for refugees accessing mobile services and mobile internet is access to charging facilities. Yet, there are currently 855 million people who are living off grid but who are covered by mobile and according to UNHCR 71 per cent of refugee households have access to at least one mobile phone. There are exciting mobile-enabled solutions and innovations in the utility sector that could have significant impact in a refugee environment. For example, energy service providers Pawame and BBOXX are deploying pay-as-you-go solar home systems in Kakuma refugee camp and the appetite for testing such business models in humanitarian contexts is gaining momentum.

  1. Connectedness and wellbeing

The importance of news and entertainment for refugees should not be underestimated. Connectivity can facilitate community activities within the camp and enable refugees to feel better connected to their home countries and to the world outside the camp. For example, in Nyarugusu refugee camp our research found that 65 per cent of internet users go online to search for news and information and 35 per cent to access entertainment. These applications can alleviate the distinct stresses and vulnerabilities experienced by confined camp populations.

Even the most basic mobile services can be a lifeline for refugees, yet the reality is that too often refugees are excluded from access to digital services. This can be down to policy and regulatory barriers, where refugees aren’t able to own a SIM card or open a mobile money account in their own name because of a lack of sufficient identity documentation, affordability constraints due to an inability to legally work, digital literacy barriers, or even a lack of understanding or knowledge of the benefits that can be brought about from access to connectivity and the internet.

Through building bridges between the mobile industry and humanitarian sector, catalysing innovative solutions, developing insights and tools, and investing in new partnerships and services, the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation programme aims to bring multiple pieces of the puzzle together to help shape an inclusive, impactful digital humanitarian future for refugees and other affected populations. Just as refugees need water, food, health care and shelter, they need access to information – it is imperative that this need is prioritised and considered equally.



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