Enabling access to connectivity for refugees: Inclusion in national frameworks

11 Apr 2019 09:00h - 10:45h

Event report


Mr Blair Levin (Executive Director, Broadband for Refugees and ex-Head of National Broadband Plan, Federal Communications Committee [FCC]) spoke about the lack of access to technology and its affordability both for refugees and host communities. He named four key existing challenges: the information gap, the access gap, the adoption gap, and the utilisation gap. He noted that refugees are mostly seen in an emergency context but many people are refugees for over 10 years. Instead of focusing on emergency situations, they are looking into achieving connectivity. They plan to set up a co-ordinating committee, as there is a need for a multistakeholder partnership for implementation purposes. Levin said that it is also important to have a co-ordinator at the national level for better overall co-ordination. He noted the need for having actual economic analysis as there are no good existing models which show how to improve a service while saving money. Connectivity is enabling local feedback in terms of utilisation. It is important to facilitate purchasing powers for both devices and services, with the focus on refugee communities. He concluded by saying that every stakeholder would benefit from universal connectivity.

Dr Aaron Martin (Legal and Regulatory Consultant, UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR]) has published a ‘Displaced and Disconnected’ report in partnership with the GSM Association (GSMA). They were looking into answering to question: ‘What are the barriers that exist for asylum seekers, refugees, and returnees?’ He underlined couple of challenges:

  • Refugees in most cases cannot legally buy and activate a SIM card, which makes them even more marginalised.

  • SIM registration requirements mostly raise national security concerns.

  • There are penalties in place for non-compliance (misregistration or non-registration)

Some of the findings and recommendations are:

  • IDs remain as barriers in most of the 20 countries where the research is focused on.

  • In a lot of countries there are legal ‘workarounds’ to access ID documents and register SIM cards (often, NGOs are assisting and opening bank sub-accounts for refugees, however this does not address inclusion).

  • Strict requirements are resulting in even greater marginalisation and the displaced are put in legal jeopardy.

  • Legal uncertainty creates a lot of inefficiency which is crucial in this context.

He especially noted recommendations for governments:

  • Clarify existing requirements;

  • Co-ordinate more across government;

  • Faster and more efficient issuing of credentials and IDs;

  • Single system of credentials that the displaced can use for services;

  • Enhanced protection of personal data.

When it comes to service providers Martin encourages them to be more ‘refugee-ready’. ‘More than advocacy, strong partnerships and strategic activities are needed.’, he said.

Ms Erdoo Yongo (Policy Analyst, Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation, GSMA) talked about facilitating access to identification for refugees. Yongo said that more non-traditional actors, such as mobile operators and humanitarian organisations, need to be included in the system to provide humanitarian digital assistance. Advocating for enabling policy environments related to identification is important. Benefits of mobile access are not only for refugees and displaced, but also for host countries and governments. Access services are becoming more digitised and it is harder to deliver effective aid to beneficiaries, because they need to do it in their own name, but very often they do not have their personal IDs. 90 of the top ‘refugee-accepting’ countries require ID cards for purchasing a SIM card.

Yongo said that the World Bank estimates that one billion people around the world do not have an ID card.

In the GSMA, they believe that a person has to meet three criterias: having a mobile phone, proof of ID, and the ID must be validated, e.g. from a central government database.

When it comes to challenges she noted the following:

  • Women are less likely than men to own a mobile phone.

  • Digital skills, literacy, economic opportunities, and household dynamics play a role in women accessing mobile.

  • Often policies disadvantage women.

  • In order to access the benefits of digital humanitarian aid, policies and regulatory environments need to exist in host countries.

  • In terms of access to identification, it is important to ensure that customer data is protected.

Mr Enoch Barata (Board Member, Uganda Communications Commission) said that the challenge of involving young people into the process without an ICT-related outreach. He noted that ten of major refugee settlements in Uganda have 2G, 3G, or 4G connectivity. Uganda has a ‘relaxed model’ for refugees, which means that they can move freely and have access to education and other facilities. Biggest challenges for them are affordability and legal barriers. When it comes to affordability, he noted that mobile expenses are a luxury for refugees because they have more urgent needs. Legal barriers are mostly connected to identification and therefore to access. He underlined the special focus that Uganda puts on women and access and affordability for them.



By Aida Mahmutović