Campaign: Global Citizen News

Why Mobile Phones Are a Critical Lifeline for Refugees


The internet is the backbone of our modern world: from social media and cloud computing to remote working, it has reshaped the way we interact and connect. With so much freely available information, we are more likely to worry about overload rather than scarcity.

However, for almost one billion people around the world who are living without stability or security, this is not the case. A 2016 study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that refugees are increasingly using technology and the internet to survive but without reliable or affordable access, they are struggling to stay connected to the global digital world. The research was undertaken in 44 countries on four continents, showing that around the world, connectivity can be a lifeline for refugees.

The Connectivity Crisis

While the internet can transform the opportunities available to refugees, they are unable to capture this potential because of many access barriers including affordability and reliability of service. The UNHCR found that refugees are approximately 50% less likely to have an internet-enabled phone when compared to the world as a whole. This is because of their extreme difficulty in affording a device or data plan, which is driven by many factors including their displacement and government restrictions on their right to work.

For the 75% of refugee households that do have a phone, they spend up to one third of their income of connectivity, often skipping essentials such as food and healthcare to pay for phone credit or charging facilities. The UNHCR observed refugees at the Nyarugusu camp trading up to ten days’ worth of food rations for just one month of mobile data. In the informal settlements of Kenya where most people live on less than $1 USD a day, the average monthly mobile data plan of $5-10 USD is simply unaffordable. This means that even if refugees with a phone they often can’t unlock its potential (e.g. working and studying online) simply because an internet connection is unaffordable.

Not having a phone or not being able to connect that phone to the internet leaves refugees vulnerable. They can’t obtain accurate information, stay in touch with loved ones, identify basic available services or even connect to their local community. With more people displaced now than ever before, refugees are facing a massive connectivity crisis.

Putting Crisis to Action

Empower recently travelled to Kenya, Greece and France to better understand the connectivity crisis, speaking to people living in refugee camps as well as informal settlements. While speaking to residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, team members Joseph Truong and Akash Sidhu observed people walking over ten kilometres a day just to access a WiFi hotspot, the only way they can get online. “People save their money to get a few minutes of internet at a hotspot”, community organizer David told them. “They search Facebook for a job or to look up the latest news”.

A continent away, Empower heard the same story from refugees living in the squats of Athens, Greece. “[My phone] is everything to me,” a young man who preferred to remain unidentified said, “I am alone here but with my phone I can talk to my family and feel OK”. He can’t afford an internet connection at home so he goes to the community centre whenever possible but between work and school and preparing for the future, he doesn’t have a lot of free time.

Even when people are able to leave the refugee camp, Empower observed that there are few opportunities available for them to rebuild their lives without language skills, legal documents or community ties. In France, one man shared his story of only being able to learn French on the internet using translation services and apps whenever he had WiFi. And while many people spoke of the struggle and sacrifice of staying connected, some stories of hope emerged from the camps and communities to demonstrate the power of the internet.

Ali, a young man in the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece, is using his mobile phone to complete a degree in mechanical engineering through the Kiron University program. The Kiron University online program guides refugee students through two-years of digital scholarship before transferring them to a traditional university where they can receive their degree. Ali works late at night when the WiFi is least crowded in order to watch his lectures and submit his homework, but seven months into the program, he is optimistic about his future and excited to finish his degree in Germany.

In the Skaramagas refugee camp, just outside of Athens, Greece, refugees are using the internet to start their own school – an ambitious project that now teaches over 300 children at the camp English, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Math, Science and Computers. The Hope School is entirely staffed by residents of the camp who spend hours each week preparing lessons. “We pooled our mobile data and downloaded the Syrian and Afghani curriculum,” co-founder and teacher Abdulgaani told Empower, “and we use the resources we find online to make the lessons”. With the internet, the Hope School can power an education revolution for children at the Skaramagas camp, some of whom have never been to a formal school.

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