Connecting forcibly displaced people – the Connectivity for Refugees initiative

As we mark World Refugee Day, millions of forcibly displaced people are connecting online to stay in touch with loved ones, find information, receive help and earn a living. The near necessity of being connected in today’s world makes access to the internet, often on mobile devices, high up the priority list of people who cross borders in search of safety, or flee their homes in countries affected by conflict. People use connectivity in many and varied ways depending on their situation – whether displaced people sharing phones in Papua New Guinea or Syrians keeping a low profile on social media in Lebanon. 

But millions of forcibly displaced people remain cut off from this life-saving means of accessing information and communication. In 2022, the 36 countries with the largest mobile coverage gap hosted 46% of internally displaced people and 18% of refugees despite only being home to 13% of the global population. Forcibly displaced people face a variety of challenges, such as damage to infrastructure during conflict, or government issued service restriction orders limiting access. 

And even where there is a network, forcibly displaced people often face barriers to usage due to the lack of affordability of devices and data, lack of digital literacy, and language or social barriers – if they are even legally permitted to register SIM cards in their own name, as many countries do not recognise refugee ID or prohibit such access.  

In 2024, the Connectivity for Refugees initiative, founded by UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the GSMA and the Government of Luxembourg, further supported by the Government of Spain, aims to start tackling the digital divide affecting forcibly displaced people. Launched in 2023 and featured at the Global Refugee Forum, the partners aim to bring together governments, humanitarians, development actors, civil society and industry in an ambitious alliance to connect 20 million forcibly displaced people and their hosts by 2030.  

Recent snapshots from the initiative covering Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Sudan, all hosting refugees and internally displaced people, identify potential ways to connect forcibly displaced people such as through connectivity centres complemented by digital skills training – but many gaps remain in even understanding where the connectivity needs are in those and many other countries.  

In priority countries, the initiative will map out forcibly displaced people’s connectivity needs and usage, gather data on the mobile coverage gap, and design and implement solutions with key stakeholders. Solutions will be delivered through innovative business models built out of strengthened partnerships between operators and humanitarian agencies.  

One example of this was demonstrated in Liberia with MTN and GiveDirectly where the latter financed the construction of mobile base stations so that cash could be delivered digitally. Other approaches could harness the potential of satellite and other non-terrestrial networks to complement mobile networks as increasingly demonstrated by the likes of Eutelsat, SES, and others. 

The GSMA has tackled humanitarian challenges, including those faced by forcibly displaced communities, for over a decade through its UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office supported Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation programme. The centrality of mobile networks for affected communities and humanitarian responders – alongside increasing need – provides a unique opportunity for diverse partnerships under the Connectivity for Refugees initiative to make a difference for some of the world’s most marginalised people. 

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