Refugees and Connectivity

The sight of refugees arriving with smartphones on the shores of Europe has pushed the issue of refugee connectivity onto the global agenda. Humanitarians are among those now taking notice – and thinking about how improved connectivity could transform everything they do – and the lives of those they help. Alan Vernon is head of UNHCR’s recently launched Connectivity for Refugees project.

Alan VernonBIO: Alan Vernon is the Lead for UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees Programme. Prior to this, he was the Deputy Director for Business Relationship Management within the Division of Information Systems and Telecommunications for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at its Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Vernon previously served as the UNHCR Representative in Malaysia, the Director for Organizational Development and Management in UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and the UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka as well as field assignments in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Thailand.

What is the UNHCR Connectivity for Refugees project?

Connectivity for Refugees is a new UNHCR initiative that focuses on enhancing access to mobile and internet connectivity, both for refugees and for the communities that host them. We’re responding to a concern that UNHCR has increasingly noted over the years that refugees need reliable access to connectivity but are often unable to afford it, or in some cases the networks are not available or adequate. In spite of this need and the ongoing digital revolution, ensuring connectivity for refugees is not a standard part of humanitarian programmes today, so it’ is clear that this is an initiative that is long overdue.

“We’ve seen refugees arriving in these very fragile dinghies, walking up on the shore and the first thing they are asking for is not food or shelter, they’re asking for Wi Fi.”

Why has UNHCR decided to set up a digital connectivity programme?

We’re setting up the programme because we see that mobile connectivity is becoming hugely important for refugees and those who help them. The most dramatic recent example has been the refugee movement into Europe. We’ve seen refugees arriving in these very fragile dinghies, walking up on the shore and the first thing they are asking for is not food or shelter, they’re asking for Wi Fi.

“In some countries they (refugees) will even go without food and water to pay for phones and charging.”

They’re asking how can they get back in touch with our families, where can they charge our phone and how can they stay connected? It is also evident that we need connectivity to improve the quality of our communication with refugee communities.

When we were conceptualizing this project, we had a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we wanted solid data and analysis, so we undertook a global assessment of the connectivity situation of refugees. What we found was that refugees prioritise connectivity. In some countries they will even go without food and water to pay for phones and charging.


Our report can be found on the UNHCR website, Connecting Refugees: How Internet and Mobile Connectivity Can Improve Refugee Well-being and Transform Humanitarian Action.

We also found that even in locations where there are good networks, refugees typically don’t have reliable access to connectivity. Our research indicated that only some seven per cent of the world’s refugees are in areas where there is no mobile network at all. For urban refugees, who make up more than 50 per cent of the world’s refugees, the issue is not the availability of networks but their affordability. Our research indicated as well that refugees are fifty per cent less likely than the general population to own a smart phone. Rural refugees, not surprisingly, face both more limited network infrastructure and lower quality networks. Both urban and rural refugees often struggle to afford data and devices.


Slovenia. Syrian youths with a mobile phone just after crossing the border

Slovenia. Syrian youths with a mobile phone just after crossing the border

What are your key objectives?

Our vision is very straightforward. We hope through creative partnerships and smart investments to ensure that all refugees and the communities that host them are connected to mobile networks and the Internet and are able leverage that connectivity for protection, education, health, self-reliance and community empowerment solutions.

We want to make sure networks are available, are affordable and that refugees and UNHCR and partners can take advantage of them.

How important is mobile connectivity to refugees and why? How has this manifested in recent crises?

It’s hugely important. We see in every crisis now the desire to be connected. Mobile phones are part of almost everyone’s daily life. In today’s world, loss of connectivity is another way in which refugees are marginalized. As they become disconnected, they lose their connection to their homes, their families and their communities. They also want to make use of mobile money and other mobile-based services.

What we have learned from our research is that if there are networks available, refugees will try to get connected. They struggle, however, because of the cost of mobile and internet services. Limitations on freedom of movement for refugees and restrictions on work also sometimes complicate their situation. Therefore, they need special support.

UNHCR wants to implement sustainable connectivity solutions with the private sector. At the early stage of an emergency, it makes sense to provide time-limited free services as humanitarian support, but what we want is that refugees are paying customers. To help achieve this, UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees Programme complements UNHCR’s livelihood programming and efforts to avoid having refugees live in camps.

How important is connectivity for humanitarian responders and the delivery of assistance?

If you think about it, really every area of humanitarian support would benefit from better connectivity as every area would benefit from improved information sharing and communication with beneficiaries. Having a connected population also enhances other priorities for UNHCR. It enhances self-reliance and well-being, it provides a better mechanism for us to monitor our work, and it has a huge role to play in an important new area for many organisations, that is cash assistance. Most important of all, mobile and internet connectivity is essential to our ability to communicate effectively with refugee communities.

“We see connectivity as key to improving the quality of humanitarian work. It will support innovation and help us work more effectively.”

Connectivity, for example, facilitates our protection work to help make sure people are safe and secure, and helping us provide timely information about their rights. Connected refugees can report danger and incidents more effectively. Health is another important area where connectivity is key to improved services. E-medicine holds huge potential to help improve health outcomes in refugee communities. Connectivity will help us manage appointments and maintain records more effectively, and it can help us monitor drug compliance of patients.– all sorts of opportunities exist. From a livelihood point of view for refugees running small businesses, being able to connect is obviously a big advantage.

Probably the biggest and most important area of potential is education. Education is hugely difficult to deliver for refugees because they often can’t be integrated into local schools as there are often language issues and limited space. The explosion of learning materials and opportunities to learn online offers a huge opportunity for refugees.

We see connectivity as key to improving the quality of humanitarian work. It will support innovation and help us work more effectively. This is already happening to a degree, but a reliably connected refugee population holds huge potential to improve the quality of humanitarian services and reduce costs.

How do you see demand for connectivity for refugees growing in the future?

It’s going to grow, and the demand from refugees to be connected will only increase.

In every humanitarian situation the aim is to have people be as self-reliant as possible. Of course in a crisis people need special assistance and support. But our goal is always to transition from a situation where we are providing assistance to people being able to help themselves. We want refugees to be as self-reliant as possible, and connectivity is a key to making that happen. We also expect that as access to connectivity improves, UNHCR and its partners will make increasing use of digital technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services they provide.

What kind of contributions would you like MNOs to make in delivering connectivity to refugees?

We see the MNOs as probably most important partner we have in this initiative.

We already have good relationships with many of them, and we this effort as complementary to and consistent with the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter.

What we want the MNOs to recognise is that working with refugees is not only consistent with their aims to do social good, but it’s also a win-win situation for them commercially. There’s a business opportunity for sure. Refugee situations are often protracted, and go on for many years, so it’s very important that we don’t create situations of welfare dependency. We need refugee communities to become self-reliant and take care of themselves and for that, it’s important that the MNOs see them as just another community that they want to do business with.

“We see the MNOs as probably most important partner we have in this initiative.”

We think extending networks to areas where they lacking or where the service is weak is a good business proposition because it will help the local population as well as the refugees. We are very keen to take advantage of Wi-Fi offerings from MNOs. We’d like to talk to them about differentiated pricing, not beyond what the local populations have but similar to when MNOs have deals for special segments of the population like teachers and veterans. We also need charging stations. As we increase the use of cash assistance in refugee crises, mobile money services will be essential. In addition, UNHCR and its partners need mobile and internet services for their work, all of which present good business opportunities.

Most of all we need partnerships. Early engagement provides early opportunity. We would like MNOs to become part of part of emergency preparedness and contingency planning, so we can take advantage of mobile connectivity services from the earliest stages of an emergency, and through this process build strong and robust partnerships.


Serbia. Telephone charging in a tent at the border between Croatia and Serbia.

Serbia. Telephone charging in a tent at the border between Croatia and Serbia.


What would role do you see for the GSMA in the field of refugee connectivity?

There’s a big opportunity for GSMA to take a prominent role in encouraging MNOs to engage with UNHCR and other humanitarian actors. Not only is there a business opportunity, but there is a social good opportunity as well. The GSMA is very well placed to help the MNOs understand this opportunity, to share case studies and examples of best practice, to help us bring together partners, to help us talk to each other, especially engaging as part of contingency planning and emergency preparedness. I think the GSMA can help both the humanitarian sector and MNOs come together to take advantages of these opportunities as partners.

What do you think are the main factors MNOs need to consider when thinking about connectivity and refugees and what they can do?

The most important factor to recognize is that refugees want to stay in touch with their families. For refugees, a mobile phone is a life line that helps them stay in touch with separated family members who are back home or spread across a variety of countries. It is also an important means for sending and receiving funds. Mobile internet connectivity is an opportunity for education, for communication, for news and, yes, for entertainment.

A smart phone today is much more than just a phone. It’s a computer with huge power beyond what could have been imagined 20 years ago. The same holds true in the humanitarian sector. Going forward into the future, a phone will be an indispensable element of what disaster victims needs to stay in touch with their families and their community, but it will also be a critical tool for all areas of humanitarian work.

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