One Of The Things That 65 Million Refugees Want Most: The Internet

A mobile connection can be a lifeline to people uprooted from home–and humanitarians are asking companies to step up.

For refugees stranded miles from home, a mobile phone and internet connection can be a lifeline–a means to connect with family and friends, to access health and education services, and even to maintain a job and career. And yet, many of the world’s refugees are currently disconnected, a new report shows. Compared to the global population as a whole, refugees are 50% less likely to have an internet phone and more than twice as likely to have no phone at all.


The numbers are based on survey responses, focus groups and interviews at camps run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The report, produced by consultants Accenture, looks at ways to boost refugee connectivity, chiefly through partnerships between government, international agencies, NGOs, and business groups.

“With 24 refugees displaced every minute, this is one of the most pressing problems of our time. Public-private partnerships are the only way to solve it,” says Marty Rogers, global managing director of Accenture’s international public sector practice.

The survey shows that refugees living in cities have a high degree of 3G connectivity (in the 90% range) but that rural refugees are much less connected (20% have no connectivity at all). Refugees place a high value on communicating, even doing without clothing and health care to pay for phone time. Facebook, Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp are the most popular services among refugees. Device affordability remains the biggest barrier to getting more people online, followed by literacy issues, and the cost of mobile plans themselves.

“Refugees often spend up to a third of their disposable income on staying connected, highlighting the main obstacle to refugee connectivity: cost,” the report says.

UNHCR wants mobile operators and governments to expand infrastructure, and it’s prepared to offer seed money to get that going. It also wants to negotiate special plan rates, subsidize subscriptions, and develop work training programs.

There are examples of companies and NGOs collaborating already, notably NetHope, a coalition of 40 nonprofits, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and others. But UNHCR wants companies to contribute more cellphone towers, more in-kind funding, and more alternative sources of power to run networks and charge up phones. (One future possibility are the broadband drones and lasers proposed by Facebook and Google, though they’re not mentioned in the report).


The report argues that companies can gain in corporate reputation, increase “employee engagement through staff volunteer programs,” validate new connectivity concepts and pilot new business models. And there may even be revenue opportunities, though Rogers expects any returns to be lower and slower than usual.

See more from the report here.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.