Refugees and Connectivity

GSMA Disaster Response

As the importance of mobile connectivity to refugees becomes more widely recognised, more organisations are launching projects to meet this need. From turning leftover data into cash donations to topping up refugee accounts and using digital money to alleviate hunger, here are several projects worth watching.



At UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2017, NORAD and international collaboration partners including Orange announced two winning games (Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters) of the EduApp4Syria competition. The international innovation competition was launched last year to develop an open source smartphone application to help the 2.5 million Syrian children who are out-of-school due to conflict. The aim is for the games to be a learning tool for Syrian out-of-school children aged 5-10. Most of these children still live in Syria and in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Given the long-term exposure to stress, many Syrian children experience learning difficulties. The games have been designed to give these children a motivational, engaging and positive learning experience. Both games are free and are less than 100 MB allowing Syrian families – whether they live in or outside of Syria – to download them.

Download Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters now.


Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg invited to a test session of the EduApp4Syria games before the official launch Monday 20 March 2017. From the left, Mr. Børge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mustafa Monzer Falaha (8), Prime Minister Mrs. Erna Solberg, Raghad Alhaj (6), Khadija Alhaj (7) and HRH Crown Princess Mette-Marit. Photo Marit Hverven/Norad




A new initiative from Three Sweden, #datadonate allows customers who don’t use their full data allowance each month to donate the surplus. This surplus is translated into the cash value of the data, and donated to UNHCR’s Syria campaign. Customers – the project does not extend to business use – can decide how much data to donate. Three Sweden will then give the cash equivalent – up to $6 per month per customer – to UNHCR. “We started off with UNHCR, because it’s something that’s very talked about here, especially in Europe now with the refugee crisis,” Kamram Alemdar, Head of Communciations at Three Sweden told the media.

It’s not the first initiative of this kind – in 2014 Starhub launched 4G4Good, allowing customers to donate unused data, SMS and calls – but it is the first to convert that data into cash.

Three have also released the technology behind the project as an open-source tool for other operators to start similar projects.

Three Sweden promotional video:



#DataDonate is an initiative of Three Sweden, allowing subscribers to donate unused data. Image source: Three Sweden



Zain and UNHCR innovative tech competition


In a new initiative launched on World Refugee Day, Zain is sponsoring a
global competition to find innovative, scaleable digital tools that can help in the current crisis. Organisers MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab are offering over $80,000 total in prize money to entrepreneurs who can present practical tools that effectively challenge problems faced by refugees. Of the four prizes on offer, two (including one sponsored by Zain) are open to those looking at a broad range of issues including healthcare, energy and security. The third prize focuses on education while the fourth is reserved for projects developed by refugees themselves.

“The overwhelming majority of refugees are proud, progressive and dignified people who find themselves in terrible circumstances that are beyond their control,” said Scott Gegenheimer, CEO of Zain Group at the launch.

The deadline for submissions is September 1st 2016. The winners will be announced on October 3rd 2016.



Innovate for Refugees is a partnership between MIT Enterprise Forum, Zain Group and MBC. Image source; Zain Group

Refugee Phones, Sweden


Refugee Phones is a volunteer initiative organised by the Swedish non profit Digital Reliance that provides refugees with phones, chargers and data. Volunteers collect donations of second hand phones, clean and repackage them and distribute them to refugees at arrival points such as train stations, and in shelters. Since starting in September 2015, Refugee Phones has distributed over 4,000 Smartphones and 7,000 prepaid SIM cards. In March 2016, the group also collected over 150 Mothers Day messages from Syrian refugees using voicemail, and paid for them to be broadcast in Syria on local radio station Fuse FM, a station popular with Syrian women. The project is now also operational in the UK, providing phones to refugees and migrants in the camps in Northern France.


Bamba Chakula


In early 2016, WFP, Safaricom and UNHCR launched Bamba Chakula, a large scale digital cash voucher system for refugees in Kakuma and Dadaab camps in Kenya. The system uses Safaricom’s M-Pesa digital money system to provide monthly cash grants to refugees via special pin-protected SIM cards, digital credit redeemable only at designated food retailers in the camp. The remaining payment is in cash for refugees to spend or invest as they choose. Payments through Bamba Chakula now reach over 107,000 households in Kakuma and Dadaab camps. Initial feedback suggests that refugees appreciate the flexibility the system provides especially over traditional food distribution: refugees can choose the food most appropriate to them and their needs.


Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore, talking with a local shopkeeper about Bamba Chakula where WFP uses M-Pesa to distribute food aid to Kakuma refugees

Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore, talking with a local shopkeeper about Bamba Chakula where WFP uses M-Pesa to distribute food aid to Kakuma refugees

Phone Credit for Refugees


Focussed on the displacement situations in northern France, Phone Credit for Refugees is a small UK based organisation that facilitates donations of top up costs for mobile phones owned by refugees. Individual refugees, including unaccompanied children, can request up to 20 pounds worth of credit (one month of calls/data) either through a volunteer in a camp or by posting a request directly on the group’s Facebook page. Those who wish to donate either send cash to the group, or can go straight to the operator in question and buy top up for the requesting refugee directly. To date the project has helped over 4,000 refugees, including a 7 year old Afghan boy called Ahmed who texted for help when he and 14 others began suffocating while hiding in a British lorry using credit supplied the week before by the group. A member of Phone Credit for Refugees alerted the emergency services who rescued everyone on board.


Phone Credit For Refugees is an organisation aiming to provide phone credit to refugees and displaced adults and children across Europe. Image source: Facebook Group; Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced people

Phone Credit For Refugees is an organisation aiming to provide phone credit to refugees and displaced adults and children across Europe. Image source: Facebook Group; Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced people





REFUNITE harnesses the power and scale of mobile to reconnect people with loved ones. The organisation was founded in 2008 by David and Christopher Mikkelsen and is now the world’s largest global family tracing platform. REFUNITE is supported by Ericsson and also has partnerships with the United Nations and a number of MNOs including AsiaCell, Three, MTN, Safaricom, Vodacom, Zain, Etisalat, Avea and Smart.

The core of the REFUNITE project is a global database of all refugees who have registered with the service, which was developed with Ericsson. Once registered, users can use the online service, which hosts over 560,000 profiles, to search for their loved ones. Around 25% of registrants are Somalis in Kenya (REFUNITE’s longest standing partnership is with local Kenyan operator Safaricom). Another strategic focus is DRC, where there are currently 70,000 users. A recent partnership with Facebook has increased the possibilities for online registration and according to REFUNITE, resulted in a spike in registrations in Libya and Iraq.


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