The digital worlds of displacement-affected communities

Context-specific reports and Methodology  

Mobile technology is changing the way people from displacement-affected communities interact with the world

From accessing humanitarian services and information to exploring personal interests and activities, mobile phones allow these communities to create their own digital worlds. This research explored these worlds in three humanitarian contexts.

Northern Lebanon

Bor, South Sudan

Iowara, Papua New Guinea

Digital worlds in Northern Lebanon Digital worlds in Bor, South Sudan Digital worlds in Iowara, Papua New Guinea

There were a diverse array of phone uses in people’s digital worlds, the top three being communicating with friends and family, taking photos and videos, and using phones as a torch. Many people also reported using the internet and social media. However, internet use was neither ubiquitous nor always available.

Primarily, phones were used for communication. For the most part this was with friends and family, which was especially important during COVID-19 lockdowns. Many Syrians spent hours each day calling, texting, and video calling, allowing them to maintain day-to-day relationships with family members in Syria. WhatsApp was the widely used and popular among both Syrian and Lebanese people.

Digital worlds in Bor are characterised by high levels of communication between people both within South Sudan, in the region and internationally, reflecting the widely scattered diaspora from the many waves of displacement. Calls and social media for social purposes was the most oft cited use of phones.

This was complemented by a significant use of mobile phones for digital leisure, including games, entertainment and music (60% of IDPs, 48% host community). The high cost of data and lack of opportunity for charging means this was often offline. 41% of users reported listening to downloaded music, sharing media using Bluetooth sharing tools and watching downloaded videos on their phones.

Phone ownership in Iowara was characterised by relatively sparse use of mobile technology. Users tend to rely on their phones for simple tasks, like calling or messaging. Interviews suggest a small group of individuals with more consistent employment or higher levels of education served as digital connectors.

People relied on these fellow community members and their phones for more advanced functions, like paying school fees. These people became key figures that the community depended on to mediate financial transactions and relationships with the world beyond Iowara.

Phone access and ownership Phone access and ownership Phone access and ownership

Almost everybody in the locations researched, had access to a mobile phone. Syrian refugees said that mobile phones were central to their lives, and that they purchased their phone soon after moving to Lebanon to communicate with friends and family or to register for humanitarian services.

In Akkar, Lebanon
96 %

of Syrian people have access to a mobile phone

98 %

of Lebanese people have access to a mobile phone

In Tripoli, Lebanon
100 %

of Syrian people have access to a mobile phone

97 %

of Lebanese people have access to a mobile phone

Mobile access and ownership in Bor Town and the PoC camp were much higher than the national market penetration rate of 22.12 per cent.

98 %

of host citizens have access to a mobile phone

90 %

of displaced people have access to a mobile phone

86 %

of host citizens own a mobile phone

79 %

of displaced persons own a mobile phone

While mobile phone ownership in Iowara was much higher than the national average at 89 per cent, mobile phone use was relatively limited and intermittent overall. This high penetration rate is likely due in part to a recent distribution of basic phones by Save the Children PNG.

91 %

of people have access to a mobile phone

89 %

of people own a mobile phone

Internet access Internet access Internet access

Given the high rate of ownership of internet-enabled handsets, many people reported using the internet and related uses such as social media. However, internet use was neither ubiquitous nor always available.

In Akkar, Lebanon
80 %

of Syrian people have access to mobile internet

80 %

of Lebanese people have access to mobile internet

In Tripoli, Lebanon
94 %

of Syrian people have access to mobile internet

84 %

of Lebanese people have access to mobile internet

Smartphones were most often owned by men and younger people. However, among other groups, basic phones were valued for their affordability, durability, longevity and battery strength.

44 %

of displaced people have access to mobile internet

40 %

of host citizens have access to mobile internet

Most users own basic phones, relying on their mobile phones for simple tasks like calling or messaging. A small group of individuals with higher income levels served as “digital connectors”, using their smartphones to help fellow community members to perform more advanced tasks, such as paying school fees.

13 %

of people have access to mobile internet

Phone ownership by gender Phone ownership by gender Phone ownership by gender

For most groups in the survey, there was a small gender gap in mobile ownership, in line with or below average for the region. However, there are more pronounced differences in smartphone ownership and internet use.

In Akkar, Lebanon
8 %

Syrian women are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone than men

12 %

Lebanese women are 12% less likely to own a mobile phone than men

In Tripoli, Lebanon
1 %

Syrian women are 1% less likely to own a mobile phone than men

9 %

Lebanese women are 9% less likely to own a mobile phone than men

Although the gender gap in mobile ownership was relatively small, women had less access to the internet and less control over their phones.

5 %

Displaced women are 5% less likely to own a mobile phone than displaced men

8 %

Host citizen women are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone than host citizen men

Surveys showed that mobile phone ownership among women is almost even with men, however this masks a significant gap in both use of mobile technology and smartphone ownership.

5 %

Women are 5% less likely to own a mobile phone than men

Phone ownership by age Phone ownership by age Phone ownership by age

Both older people and people with disabilities were less likely to own a mobile phone than younger people or those without disabilities. While rates of phone sharing were high, people who do not own a phone are less able to access information, communicate with friends and family at home, or access assistance whenever they need or want to.

In Akkar, Lebanon
27 %

Syrian people over the age of 60 are 27% less likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

19 %

Lebanese people over the age of 60 are 19% less likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

In Tripoli, Lebanon
2 %

Syrian people over the age of 60 are 2% more likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

5 %

Lebanese people over the age of 60 are 5% more likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

In both host and IDP communities, older people had a significantly lower rate of mobile ownership, including a 76 per cent smartphone gap.

39 %

People over the age of 60 are 39% less likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

Men and women over the age of 60 were less likely to be phone users. It was this age group that other community members reported as likely to be marginalised by a shift towards greater reliance on mobile technology.

5 %

People over the age of 60 are 5% less likely to own a mobile phone than people aged 18-59

Phone ownership by disability status Phone ownership by disability status Phone ownership by disability status

Both older people and people with disabilities were less likely to own a mobile phone than younger people or those without disabilities. While rates of phone sharing were high, people who do not own a phone are less able to access information, communicate with friends and family at home, or access assistance whenever they need or want to.

12 %

People living with a disability in Lebanon are 12% less likely to own a mobile phone than people living without a disability

A significant proportion of IDPs in Bor (22 per cent) reported having at least one disability. As mobile services can be especially valuable for people with disabilities, lower mobile access and use can exacerbate vulnerabilities and exclude them from the broader benefits of mobile phones.

14 %

People living with a disability are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than people living without a disability

People with disabilities appear to be less likely to use a mobile phone. A significant proportion (18 per cent) of the refugee population reported having a disability.

8 %

People living with a disability are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone than people living without a disability

Digital leisure Digital leisure Digital leisure

Frequent electricity cuts have prevented many people from regularly using their TVs and pushed them to rely increasingly on their mobile phones for entertainment, including to watch series, news and sports. Both the refugee and host communities commonly used Facebook and YouTube for entertainment, learning languages, watching motivational videos and finding out about science, life hacks and skills.

Mobile phones were used heavily for digital leisure, with many displaced people using them to pass the time and find relief from the hardship of their daily lives. However, the high cost of data and lack of access to charging has meant that many users have found ways to use their phones primarily offline. Music, movies and videos are often shared via Bluetooth apps.

Despite the prevalence of basic phones with limited functionality, fun and entertainment were cited as one of the main ways people use their phones in Iowara. Respondents either relied on basic phones to play games or shared smartphones to access films and music. Some interviewees suggested that music and films were both a way to connect with their home culture in Indonesia, as well as a way of switching off and relaxing.

Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech

Both Syrians and Lebanese were concerned about hate speech, receiving incorrect information or fake news and being targeted by scams. Sixty-two per cent of respondents reported that they had seen hate speech, and interviewees described anti-refugee sentiments towards Syrians online as widespread. Many Syrian interviewees were very reluctant to discuss these problems and were concerned about the monitoring of common social media platforms by the Syrian government.

People in Bor shared their concerns about false and fabricated information about the conflict and peace agreement. Stories of ethnic, political and tribal conflicts often linger in public discourse for a long time, with the details lost or altered with each telling. Most people who had access to the internet reported that they had seen false information online.

Many interviewees told researchers about their concerns over phishing scams. There was also a concern about misinformation and disinformation, particularly the risk of it being used to target personal relationships. For example, photoshopped images of individuals implying adultery have been reported, creating conflict within communities. Finally, misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine was common within the community.

Financial wellbeing Financial wellbeing Financial wellbeing

There are no mobile money deployments in Lebanon where there is a well-developed banking sector, so these research questions were only asked in Iowara, PNG and Bor, South Sudan.

Uptake of mobile financial services (MFS) in Bor was low. Due to low and inconsistent incomes and pressing need, when people use MFS, it is almost entirely to meet their basic needs, such as food, education and airtime, and not in transformative ways that could improve their well-being. However, there is optimism about the future role of these technologies, especially in promoting greater financial well-being with easy-to-use, affordable and speedy financial services.

Uptake of mobile financial services (MFS) in Iowara was low. Due to low and inconsistent incomes and pressing need, when people use MFS, it is almost entirely to meet their basic needs, such as food, education and airtime, and not in transformative ways that could improve their well-being. However, there is optimism about the future role of these technologies, especially in promoting greater financial well-being with easy-to-use, affordable and speedy financial services.

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This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members

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