How do people in humanitarian crises use their mobile phones? Introducing our new research

The role that mobile connectivity plays in the lives of people affected by humanitarian crisis has never been more important to understand. Connectivity, or the lack of it, is now central to many dimensions of lives and livelihoods. Digital channels have played a large role in how the events of the past year have played out around the world, and there has been a significant rise in digital humanitarian assistance. However, our understanding of how people actually use their phones in different crises is still very limited.

In partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the GSMA is about to embark on field research to understand how refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities in humanitarian settings relate to their mobile phones. Local researchers will be conducting in-depth mixed methods research in three settings: Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, and Lebanon. Foundational research has identified five emerging themes in digital humanitarian action that we will be exploring in each setting:

  • financial well-being;
  • COVID-19;
  • digital leisure and community well-being;
  • climate change; and
  • misinformation, disinformation and hate speech (MDH).

The following summarises early findings from the foundational research and highlights areas we hope to investigate further through end user research in each context.

Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Our research in PNG will focus on Western Papuan refugees in Iowara, a rural camp where 2,500-3,000 asylum seekers and refugees reside.

The first area of focus of our research in PNG will be climate change as climate hazards pose severe risks to the country and are the primary cause of displacement. Refugees are particularly exposed as they are largely dependent on farming, which has been affected by increased instances of extreme weather. We want to explore how mobile technology is currently being used to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially for farmers, as well as the potential of mobile technology to help build resilience to the effects of climate change.

Second, since the onset of COVID-19, misinformation has been an increasing area of concern. This is exacerbated by distrust of government and international organisations, lack of clarity in public health messaging, and conflation of the virus with sorcery. With this research we hope to explore how people in Iowara assess the trustworthiness of information they access through mobile technology and the potential of mobile technology to combat misinformation.

The third focus area in PNG is financial wellbeing. Exclusion from formal financial services is high, especially among refugees and displaced people. While a mobile money service was recently launched by Digicel, uptake of the service remains very low. Despite these challenges, some humanitarian organisations have been exploring the use of digital channels to deliver cash assistance in the region. In Iowara we hope to investigate the potential for mobile financial services and the potential for mobile as a channel for cash disbursements.

South Sudan

South Sudan has experienced civil war and sub-national conflicts since independence in 2011, creating the largest refugee crisis in Africa. In addition, the country has faced a series of concurrent shocks since the start of 2020 including COVID-19, low oil prices, floods, and a locust infestation. An estimated two thirds of the population need humanitarian assistance and protection support. Our research will be in Bor, Jonglei state, where we will speak to IDPs residing in UNMISS camps. Although South Sudan has one of the lowest rates of mobile access and connectivity in the world, Bor has varying levels of 2G and 3G connectivity and IDPs perceive mobile phones as particularly useful.

Due to barriers to information access such as limited telecoms infrastructure and social/language barriers and the ethnic nature of South Sudan’s conflict, there are issues with hate speech as well as misinformation around COVID-19. MDH is widely shared through social media, WhatsApp and online. This research will explore the information landscape further to understand how misinformation and hate speech spread, as well as how to combat it.

In addition, financial exclusion is high with 59 per cent of the population having unmet financial needs. World Food Programme (WFP) has expressed an intention to pilot digitally delivered Cash & Voucher Assistance (CVA). Our research will seek to better understand users’ financial needs given the slowly emerging market for mobile money and digitally delivered CVA.

Finally, we will also explore ‘digital leisure’ to understand how people navigate the challenges around limited connectivity when using mobile for entertainment and gauge to what extent digital leisure acts as a gateway to other mobile services.


Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million refugees, making it the country with the highest ratio of refugees to the host community. Lebanon has experienced multiple crises in the last two years, including political instability, economic shock, currency devaluation, fuel crisis, food insecurity, the Beirut blast, and COVID-19. For this research, we will be speaking with Syrian refugees in urban camps and informal tented settlements (ITS) in Tripoli, where mobile penetration is high.

COVID-19 and the increasing prevalence of mobile phones and Wi-Fi connections in refugee camps and ITS have accelerated humanitarian organisations’ move towards digitalising humanitarian assistance and remote service delivery. However, rumours and misinformation have also increased. Refugee-led information groups have grown organically on both Facebook and WhatsApp, some reaching multiple hundreds of thousands of members. Whilst important to communities, these groups also enabled spreading of rumours. Misinformation is also fuelling inter-community tensions between Lebanese nationals and refugee communities. Research in Lebanon will explore how users navigate MDH using mobile technology and possible solutions to the resulting harms. Additionally, research will seek to understand how users have leveraged mobile technology to navigate the pandemic. Finally, our work in Lebanon will explore the role of mobile in providing leisure and wellbeing across different gender and age groups.

In the coming months, we aim to analyse and share initial qualitative findings which will then inform a quantitative survey later in 2022 and final analysis in autumn 2022. Please get in touch if you are working in similar areas or if you would like to know more about the study. You can reach out to our team directly at [email protected].

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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