World Refugee Day – The power (and limits) of mobile technology

Worldwide 89.3 million people are forcibly displaced 27.1 million of these people have crossed a border and are refugees. As a result of conflict, violence, human rights violations, and increasingly severe climate shocks, a growing number of people are forced to flee homes every year.  

The global challenges faced today leave little room for optimism and solutions will necessarily be multi-sectoral, structural, and long term. GSMA’s Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation team focuses on one small puzzle piece of this solution – the role of mobile technology.  

As phone ownership has increased around the world (over 5.3 billion unique subscribers worldwide) and network coverage has spread, mobile phones present an opportunity to provide more dignified, efficient support to refugees. Of course, technology is not a panacea, and it must be designed around existing user behaviours and preferences and with strong protection policies in place.  

Our team has worked with refugees and in refugee assistance around the world. We conduct research to better understand how refugees, and people in humanitarian contexts more broadly, use and access mobile phones. Of course, this varies immensely between settings. However, we’ve seen several trends in the benefits people cite across refugee contexts:  

  1. Emotional well-being and social connection: Often in our research, the number one function people use their phones for is staying in touch with friends and family. In research conducted in Nyrugusu, Tanzania, 96% of Burundian and Congolese refugees used their phones to stay in touch with friends and family in the camp and 81% used it to keep in touch with those outside the camp. They also used mobile technology to track down loved ones on social media, keep in touch with news from home, and to relax with entertainment. Similarly, in our new research we are conducting in Lebanon, South Sudan and Papua New Guinea, connecting with family and friends, watching news from home and relaxing with movies or music were also incredibly important to users. We have found that, especially in displacement contexts, this social-emotional wellbeing aspect of mobile technology cannot be underestimated.  
  1. Financial well-being: We have also found that, in many refugee contexts, mobile phones are an essential tool for financial management. In our research we have found that people use their phones to help run their businesses, to access mobile financial services like savings products, and to receive cash and voucher assistance in a safe and efficient way. This is especially true in East Africa, where higher rates of mobile money usage provide a huge opportunity for people who may not have the requisites to open a bank account to access financial services.  
  1. Access to information: As acutely illustrated during the pandemic, access to accurate, timely and localised information can be lifesaving. Mobile phones have the power to quickly disseminate this information at scale and, just as importantly, it has the power to help tailor that information to the local context and allow for two-way communication. Refugees use their phones to search for information independently and humanitarian organisations are increasing helping to provide key information using mobile channels as well. For example, one of our grantees, Solidarités International created the SOLIS bot to provide two-way communication with Syrian refugees over Whatsapp. This type of solution has the added benefit of helping to create a more responsive, accountable humanitarian system.  
  1. Access to digital humanitarian services: Increasingly, humanitarian organisations are delivering services leveraging mobile technology. This offers significant advantages to organisations including increased efficiency and transparency. More importantly, if designed appropriately to ensure every potential aid recipient can access services, this type of programming can offer a pathway to digital inclusion and provide greater dignity, privacy, security, and efficiency. For example, UNHCR piloted providing phones to returning refugees from Tanzania to Burundi. They provided phones and digital literacy training so that not only could they provide cash assistance using mobile money once returnees had scattered to their homes around the country, but also returnees would be able to use phones for their own purposes.  

Despite these advantages, significant barriers to mobile access and use remain, affecting disproportionately the most marginalised within any given society. These barriers depend on the local context and to programme effectively, humanitarians must understand which are relevant where they are working to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. Common barriers to digital inclusion that we’ve seen in humanitarian settings include: 

  • Cost/Affordability: The cost of handsets and bundles can be prohibitive, especially in humanitarian settings where livelihoods opportunities are often reduced. While this affects everyone, it may affect particularly marginalised groups like women and people with disabilities. In our Digital Lives of Refugees research, cost of handset was the most common barrier cited by users in all three contexts, followed by cost of airtime.   
  • Literacy and digital skills: Difficulty reading and writing, and low levels of digital literacy is another major to phone ownership and use.  GSMA has a toolkit to help with these barriers.  
  • Charging and electricity: Often settlements where displaced people reside are off the grid, creating barriers to access charging points. Often people in these contexts must pay to access charging points, creating additional barriers.   
  • KYC: Know-your-customer requirements in many countries require certain official forms of identity documents to access SIM-cards legally. Many displaced people are not able to access these documents or the documents they have are not accepted by local governments.   

On World Refugee Day, it is important to refocus on our common duty to support refugees worldwide and to work together to create sustainable, systemic solutions. We must think creatively about how to use the tools at our disposal to their fullest extent. And that includes mobile technology.  

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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