7 iconic technologies that have shaped the UN’s work for refugees

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, marks its 70th anniversary this year. During the past seven decades, UNHCR has assisted millions of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution on all continents. It has stood the test of time by making the most of new technologies as new challenges arose. This article dives into the past to shine a spotlight on seven technologies that have shaped our work from 1950 to 2020.

1) 1950s — Telex

In the 1950s, Telex, the ancestor of the fax, facilitated the resettlement of tens of thousands of European refugees.

A telex operator in a telegraph station in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1950s. © telehistoriska

The first decade of UNHCR’s work was marked by the crisis in Hungary. As Soviet troops invaded Budapest in 1956, tens of thousands of Hungarians crossed the border to neighboring Austria and Yugoslavia.

This is where Telex played a key role. For about 150 years, one of the faster media for long-distance communication was the telegram, and Telex machines appeared in the 1930s to make them even faster. Telex sent telegrams by electricity and radio signals.

In November 1956 UNHCR sent an appeal by telegram to 20 States: “In our and Austrian Governments opinion extremely effective help would also be provided if governments sympathetic to the trials of Hungarian people would agree to give at least temporary asylum to the greater possible number of refugees STOP.”

Within days of the exodus, an extraordinary movement of solidarity arose to shelter and help resettle the refugees. As a result, 180,000 Hungarians found refuge in 37 different countries.

2) 1960s — Off-road vehicles

In the 1960s, off-road vehicles helped provide assistance to refugees affected by new conflicts amid decolonization in Africa

Refugees in Elisabethville, Congo (today Lubumbashi, DRC) gather around a vehicle from which a UN official announces the names of refugees to be repatriated. © UN Library, 1962

During the 1960s, UNHCR’s focus shifted away from Europe to Africa. UNHCR was called to provide assistance to millions of refugees fleeing the violence sparked by wars of independence in Algeria, Congo, Angola and Nigeria.

To assess the needs of and provide assistance to refugees across vast territories with poor road infrastructure, heavy-duty off-road vehicles became essential. While in the beginning UNHCR mostly purchased Land Rovers, it switched in the 80s to Toyota Landcruisers, deemed more suited to deep field conditions.

Today, UNHCR’s fleet is made up of 6,000 light vehicles — 85 percent are off-road cars. These cars include as few electronics as possible — with the exception of a radio and a tracking system — to minimize the need for repairs.

3) 1970s — Polythene sheet

In the 1970s, polythene sheeting allowed for more resistant emergency shelters

Instructions to assemble a temporary shelter presented in Oxfam’s technical guide on Plastic sheeting (first edition 1973) © Oxfam

In the 1970s, UNHCR became involved in large-scale relief operations in Asia. UNHCR expanded its activities to protect refugees fleeing Vietnam, Bangladesh, Laos and Cambodia. In 1971, India, UNHCR and other aid organizations set up 800 camps to shelter part of 10 million Bengali refugees. Crowded conditions led to serious cholera outbreaks.

Providing better temporary shelters became a priority. In the 70s, aid organizations, which until then mostly relied on reinforced cotton fabric — expensive and prone to rotting — started using polythene sheeting to shield refugees from extreme weather and the spread of disease. The polythene sheeting used in the 70s was mostly agricultural film, which remained fragile.

Shelter technology evolved a lot in the 90s when UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) wrote their own specifications for manufacturers. An MSF logistician discovered that black fibres coated in white were more resistant and reduced the temperature inside shelters. Hence the infamous white humanitarian tarpaulin.

4) 1980s — First computers

In the 1980s, UNHCR started shifting from paper to computers, revolutionizing the way we plan, communicate and manage information

An aid worker in Thailand types information on a computer. © ICRC/ Thierry Gassmann, 1986

In the 1980s, the population of displaced persons continued to grow. UNHCR received the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for its work on different continents. The beginning of the decade was also marked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which displaced 6,3 million Afghans to Iran and Pakistan.

As UNHCR’s work became more complex, computers were introduced in the 80s first to manage payroll and later on, to improve emergency planning and statistics. The first software used by UNHCR were WordPerfect (a word processing application), Lotus 1–2–3 and MultiPlan (spreadsheet programs).

The organization took some time to make the move towards computers. In a memo from 1976, a UNHCR consultant advised against “rushing the process” while noting that: “In the long-run, the advantages are on the side of the computer, provided it is intelligently used.”

5) 1990s — Satellite phones and high frequency radio

In the 1990s, satellite phones and HF/VHF radios transformed UNHCR’s communications as it upscaled operations in war-torn countries

A UNHCR colleague in a radio room in Bosnia gives a call over a satellite phone while smoking a cigarette. Other technologies in the room include: a HF radio, a VHF radio, a laptop, a teleprinter and a fax. © UNHCR/ Anneliese Hollmann, 1994

In the 1990s, the end of the cold war created new challenges. Sadako Ogata, then the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, declared: “On the one hand, a new spirit of international cooperation has fostered opportunities for conflict resolution. On the other, new sources of tensions and conflicts are emerging.”

In Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, UNHCR mounted relief operations in the midst of ongoing wars.

In the 1990s, good communications became vital to manage programs and ensure staff security. To send messages between UNHCR’s 200 field locations and headquarters, staff used shortwave radio transmission.

By 1995, UNHCR had equipped some 1,200 vehicles with high frequency radio transceivers, allowing staff to maintain contact with their base within a 1,000 km perimeter.

Portable satellite phones became particularly useful in emergency conditions. But in 1995, the sets were still limited to a single voice channel (one person at a time) and were very expensive to use (from $ 6.50 to $ 10.00 per minute).

6) 2000s — Biometric registration

In the 2000s, biometric technology enhanced refugee registration and paved the way for a more efficient delivery of aid

A UNHCR colleague in Ethiopia takes the fingerprint of a young Somali girl in a screening centre. © UNHCR/Petterick Wiggers, 2009

In the 2000s, displacement levels initially declined before escalating again due to a series of conflicts, including the invasion of Iraq.

In a 2003 report to the General Assembly, UNHCR highlighted the challenge of mixed movements — where refugees and economic migrants travel the same routes — and its concern that asylum policies might become subordinate to migration control.

To enhance refugee registration and protection, UNHCR started using biometric technology in 2002. This consists of recording refugee’s fingerprints and running iris scans. Biometric registration enabled more secured identity documents. It also became an entry point for the delivery of other kinds of assistance, most notably cash transfers.

7) 2010s — Digital education

In the 2010s, internet connectivity became a lifeline for refugees and offered access to transformative services, such as digital education

Young refugees use tablets provided by the Instant Network Schools © INS

The 2010s were marked by the war in Syria, which displaced 12 millions, and the South Sudanese civil war, which broke out two years after the country’s independence, displacing 4 millions. As both conflicts prolonged over years, millions of refugees were left in limbo in neighboring countries.

A 2016 study by UNHCR and Accenture, revealed that refugees see connectivity as a critical survival tool. In the last decade, providing mobile networks and internet to refugees became a priority of UNHCR. Among other innovations, internet connectivity has enabled digital education services.

The Instant Network Schools, set up in 2013 by UNHCR and Vodafone Foundation, aims to give 500,000 refugees and teachers access to digital learning in marginalized communities in Africa by 2025. Other initiatives like the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium bring together universities which enroll refugees in online Bachelor and Master’s programs.

2020s — What’s next?

In 70 years, technologies have changed a lot but UNHCR’s mission to help refugees survive and thrive remains. What iconic technologies will shape UNHCR’s work in the next decade? Artificial intelligence, robotics and smart devices may be on the podium. But while technologies have and will continue to facilitate UNHCR’s mission, all credits go to UNHCR colleagues — the human brains and hearts behind our work.

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With thanks to:

  • Andreas Reisinger, Fleet Management Coordinator
  • Angel Pascual, Senior Shelter Coordination Officer
  • Alexandre Galley, Supply officer
  • Elie Ayoub, Deputy Director, Field ICT Support
  • Yulia Fedorenko, Communications Officer, DIST
  • UNHCR Records and Archives Team

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UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

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Pauline Eluère

Pauline Eluère

Strategic communicator and digital trends explorer 🚀 at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. E-mail: eluere@unhcr.org

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