Why do refugees need Wi-Fi?

Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes

This year, a record-breaking 65 million people are on the run, having been displaced by conflict and violence. If averages prove true, most of these people will remain displaced for 19 years or more.

Whether a displaced person lives in a camp or a host community, their connectivity to mobile services and the Internet is not only a lifeline but also a key to success. Recognizing this, humanitarians are increasingly teaming up with satellite and mobile-network operators, making digital connectivity a key component of humanitarian response.

Najat Abdulrahman, Yahsat’s Head of business development, explains: “Today, communication is at the top of the value chain … None of the life-saving necessities will reach survivors without the largely invisible communication networks to support them.”

For many people, digital connectivity is about keeping in touch with families and friends and gaining access to new information. This is especially true in displacement settings, where people need to understand their new surroundings, learn how to access assistance and let loved ones know they are safe. Technology also helps people gain new skills and find work. In rural camps in Chad, displaced teachers said they try to get online to download lesson plans, while blacksmiths access YouTube videos to school trainees on welding techniques.

The UN Refugee Agency, Google, and data-communications provider O3b Networks have partnered to provide a Wi-Fi connection to refugees in these camps in Chad through satellite connections. They have also set up solar chargers to provide power, and they are training camp residents in Internet use. Similar projects with other partners are up and running in Greece, Jordan, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

Jack Deasy, Vice President of O3b Networks, explains that in many crisis situations, connectivity through cables or other means has been disrupted or never existed, so satellite service is the only way to digitally connect people. Satellite connection is now pretty easy: the equipment is lightweight, satellites are now placed relatively near to the Earth, and they operate at a high frequency, which gives a fast connection wherever it’s needed. As Mr. Deasy explained at the recent Humanitarian ICT Forum in California: “We can point our satellites to pretty much anywhere and give a connection.”

Connectivity in rapid response is crucial, but connecting at-risk areas before disasters occur, and then maintaining that connection after they end, must be part of the plan from the get-go, says David Hartshorn, Head of the Global VSat Forum. A sustainable approach involves securing licences and maintenance agreements with local technicians in at-risk areas anywhere in the world, in some cases building on pre-existing services that are already being used to support banking and financial services, health, education and private sector operations.

For refugees in Chad and displaced people around the world, these types of projects and partnerships are becoming more crucial by the day. As one young refugee in Chad said: “If I could connect, I wouldn’t have to sell half of my food rations to keep in touch with my family.”