Refugees digital rights: Necessities and needs

12 Nov 2018 12:15h - 13:15h

Event report


[Read more session reports and live updates from the 13th Internet Governance Forum]

While the world hit with the refugee crisis is resolving challenges such are homes, clean water, and food, as basic human needs, refugees are also denied basic human rights when it comes to the digital world we live in: freedom of expression, right to privacy, access to information. It seems that countries are unable to address these digital challenges in order to provide human rights for all, equally offline and online. 

The workshop was moderated by Mr Ian Brown, Head of Research and Lifelong Learning, Digital Skills and Inclusion Team at the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who invited speakers to share their perspectives when it comes to the refugees digital rights with the aim to use this session as a base to make the issue of refugees/ digital rights a constant topic on the IGF agenda. 

Mr Mohamed Farahat, Lawyer, Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights and African Civil Society on Information Society (ACSIS), said that the main challenge for refugees in any county is limited access to the Internet and to education, which makes it impossible for families to reunite. Access to the Internet is the last resort for displaced people to communicate about important issues and challenges in both the host and the county of origin. He recommended ‘amending the 1951 Convention’ by adopting new instruments which would relate specifically to rights of displaces people in connection to the digital rights.

Mr Ciss Kane, Chair, African Civil Society on the Information Society (ACSIS), stated that there is an ongoing debate about the relationship between the rights online and the rights offline, but, ‘all the rights offline should be also implemented online’. Kane noted that for refugees ‘the Internet is a luxury when in most of the cases they do not have clean water, toilets, cannot settle’. He suggested that the use of ICTs is probably the best way to ‘weight on the processes’ related to refugees in order to ‘make them have their own rights in all aspects’. The year 2019 will be ‘the year of refugees and displaced persons’. He reminded about the importance of access and cost-effectiveness, and the local content. ‘Sometimes they don’t have a penny to have connection and they need to be in touch.’

Ms Xianhong Hu, Assistant Programme Specialist, UNESCO, noted that UNESCO is advocating for the Internet, fundamental principles, and information to be developed based on human rights that should be accessible by all. Hu noted that she thinks that digital rights need to be equally applied to refugees. ‘When a refugee comes to a country, they first have to ask for water and a shelter, but then they ask for a WiFi and a connection.’ She stated that the ICT and the Internet are central to satisfying refugees’ basic needs and address their well-being. She mentioned the following rights to keep in mind when we talk about refugees digital rights: freedom of expression, freedom of information, privacy and personal data protection. She said that barriers in using the Internet need to be removed for both women and children.

Mr Aaron K. Martin, PhD Research Fellow in Data Ethics,Tilburg Law School, joined the session via video link. He noted that it is crucial for refugees to be able to register for their own SIM card when in a foreign country, and to use bank cards. In Bangladesh, refugees are forbidden to have a SIM card and are even being imprisoned if found with one in their possession. Martin underlined the importance of providing meaningful choice to displaced people and better and more stable humanitarian programming. In one of the countries in the Middle East they have negotiated a ‘special and more cost effective refugee plan for groups like this’. He concluded by saying that refugees are just population among many others, such as asylum seekers and returnees. They all have different realities and therefore it is important to account for all of the groups and the specifics of their situations as we think through the digital rights.

An IGF participant from Hong Kong stated ‘There is a new tool in the toolbox. The refugees who speak might not have legal certainty but cryptographic certainty. In the world of bitcoin and blockchain, this would be possible.’ 

Ms Mary Ann Franklin, a participant from the audience, said that refugees already have specific rights under international law, and wondered how it is possible that refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons come across challenges such as the access to the Internet or the use of mobile phones. 


By Aida Mahmutović