December 16, 2019

Why we must bring meaningful connectivity to refugees

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau

*The following is adapted from my remarks today during a special joint session about achieving meaning connectivity for refugees  at 1st Global Refugee Forum.

Bringing truly meaningful connectivity to refugees, displaced persons, and the communities in which they live is an urgent and important issue.

Marginalized groups such as women, children, persons with disabilities and rural dwellers are especially exposed to the challenges that lack of connectivity brings to managing daily activities.

But for displaced people – many of whom already belonged to one or more of these marginalized communities – the challenges are magnified many times.

Isolated from their loved ones and their support networks, traumatized by the circumstances that led them to flee and the rigors of their voyage, unsure of their surroundings and their future, refugees can benefit enormously from access to digital technologies.

Certainly, there are many urgent needs – food, shelter, clothing, clean water – that cannot be met through digital solutions.

But beyond these very basic needs, digital technologies have much to offer.

Digital technologies

Mobile phones and the internet can provide access to loved ones, to support networks, and to vital information. They can serve as a portal to mobile money services. They can bring education to displaced children, so that they do not fall irretrievably behind through lack of schooling. And they can help displaced adults acquire new skills that can help them find employment in their new home.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) also offer many benefits to the humanitarian agencies and host communities that support displaced populations.

Geographic information systems and big data, for example, can play a valuable role in understanding where refugees are located, so that aid quickly gets to where it is most needed. ICT databases can help with refugee identification and status determination, reconnecting family groups, and assisting in planning for the provision of essential services like medical care.

I am greatly encouraged by the fact that the power of information and communication technologies is now being recognized and prioritized by many leaders in the humanitarian community, and not least by UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi, who has been an energetic advocate for wider deployment of digital platforms in the work of UNHCR, as well as a tireless builder of new partnerships with mobile operators and the broader tech community.

Mobile phones and the internet can provide access to loved ones, to support networks, and to vital information.

There can be no doubt that we still face many challenges. Refugees often find themselves in remote areas that lack basic infrastructure. And even where there is connectivity, the cost of handsets and mobile services can be prohibitive. So can corporate or government policies that mandate certain ID documents in order to get SIM cards – documents that most refugees will simply not possess. Figures show that refugees are 50% less likely than the general population to have an Internet-enabled phone, and that almost one third of refugee households still have no phone at all.

Strategies to connect refugees

Tragically, over the past five years or so the number of refugees globally have been at their highest level since the Second World War. But that figure also means that, for innovative telcos and service providers, the refugee community represents a new opportunity.

One very positive development over the past two or three years has been proactive collaboration between UN agencies like UNHCR, government ICT regulatory agencies, and humanitarian organizations.

Through its Global Strategy for Connectivity for Refugees, UNHCR has recognized that improving connectivity for displaced communities requires true multi-stakeholder engagement involving a broad range of actors. The strategy also recognizes that the issue goes much deeper than infrastructure. Enabling policy and regulatory frameworks; affordability of services and devices; and digital skills and local language interfaces are all vitally important elements of the mix.

The UN Broadband Commission, a high-level advocacy group established by ITU and UNESCO to promote broadband access and inclusion, released its annual State of Broadband report during the UN General Assembly in September.

This 2019 edition of the report touches on global efforts to provide broadband connectivity to refugees and internally displaced individuals. Endorsed by the Commission’s 54 global leaders from government, the private sector, civil society and academia, the report advocates:

  • for greater efforts to make access available to refugees and the communities that host them by increasing infrastructure investment
  • for ensuring affordable devices and access by negotiating and subsidizing internet-enabled devices and plans, and expanding access centres
  • for more capacity development and training opportunities
  • and for facilitating content development and incentives for service development and delivery so that refugees can use the technologies and platforms.

At its meeting in September, Commissioners committed to supporting greater international and national efforts to provide broadband connectivity to refugees and displaced individuals, particularly with regards to promoting multi-stakeholder partnerships to accelerate progress.

We believe refugees and the communities that host them should have the right, and the choice, to be included in a connected society, and to be able to leverage the benefits and opportunities of digital technologies, to build better futures for themselves and their families.

At the government level, we need enabling environments that include refugees in national systems, and in national ICT and broadband policies and strategies. We also need to engage with industry to extend services, and facilitate substantial interventions and investments that will ensure progress and real impact in the years to come.

Data and research is also of critical importance for stakeholders to commit and invest in infrastructure and development interventions. We applaud the research and data gathering by UNHCR, GSMA and other partners that inform better decision making in support of displaced persons.

For our part, at ITU we work each year with national administrations to collect data for the ITU World Telecommunication ICT Regulatory Survey. This survey, which covers a wide range of ICT policy and regulatory issues and allows us to track the latest ICT trends and evolutions, includes questions on refugees –  for example, whether a country’s universal service definition includes refugees, and if there are already activities financed by the Universal Service Fund that involve and engage refugees. This is work that we hope to expand further, with your support.

Finally, we must remember that people and their skills are always at the core of what we call meaningful connectivity.

What the GIGA project aims to achieve

One project that ITU has launched in partnership with Unicef, is GIGA, an initiative that aims to connect every school to the internet, and every young person to information, opportunity, and choice. For refugees, the secure middle mile and last mile infrastructure that GIGA will bring to each school has the potential to also serve as a platform that provides both connectivity as well as relevant content.

We believe refugees and the communities that host them should have the right, and the choice, to be included in a connected society.

UNHCR and ITU are currently developing a programme including country pilot projects focused around digital inclusion for refugees and their host communities in Africa.

When someone becomes a refugee, they do not just lose their home –  they lose their community, their way of life, and their social safety nets. They also often lose their hope for the future, and for the future of those they love.

As UNHCR reminds us: “No one becomes a refugee by choice.”

In many cases, we are powerless to prevent the natural disasters and social upheavals that displace people and communities. But we are not  powerless to ensure that those who lose or flee from their homes get the best possible support, and the best possible opportunities to rebuild their lives.

Through digital networks and services, we have the power to give people back their future.

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Why we must bring meaningful connectivity to refugees

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