Breaking the cycle of ignorance: Prioritising refugees’ digital leisure and entertainment

By UNHCR’s Innovation Service and Erasmus University Rotterdam

Co-Authors: John Warnes, Erika Perez Iglesias, Payal Arora, Amanda Alencar, Daniela Jaramillo-Dent, Julia Camargo

Illustration by Noah Mukono

“Bringing to light the divide in access to digital leisure challenges the sacred tenet on which the global digital project has been built upon over decades — the belief that a good digital life for the poor would be based in work and inherently utilitarian.”

Arora, 2019 — The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West

On the other side of the digital divide

While the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has pursued an agenda of enhanced connectivity and digital inclusion for the forcibly displaced for a number of years, many of the interventions have been tied to specific developmental goals, such as education, the use of digital financial services, and greater access to information. There is an emerging theory that challenges the notion that those targeted with such interventions prioritise connectivity for these purposes. Rather, the agenda highlights leisure as a key driver for adoption of digital technologies, and a key use case for such technologies that bring indirect benefits beyond the ‘virtuous’ aims of humanitarian aid and development programmes globally.

To explore these issues further, UNHCR and Erasmus University Rotterdam — an academic institution in the Netherlands with specific expertise and experience on digital leisure issues among marginalised populations — have joined forces on a new project that will apply the theory in a forced displacement context, undertaking primary research with communities in Brazil to hear directly from them about how leisure and entertainment impact their use of digital technology.

Innovation beyond needs; towards autonomy and desire

UNHCR’s Innovation Service has observed that much of the information gathered around connectivity usage is often wider than the scope of enquiry. For example, the GSMA report “The Digital Lives of Refugees” undertaken in partnership with UNHCR, had a primary focus on mobile financial services, mobile enabled utilities and food security. However, when respondents were asked about how they used mobile devices, the most common use cases were social interaction (one-to-one/group messaging) and entertainment. In line with this, the Information & Communication needs assessment carried out in the Americas by the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V) in 2019 shows that 93% of respondents are using mobile connectivity services to communicate with friends and family. This shouldn’t be surprising. People are people and social interaction and leisure are a clear use-case worldwide, yet the humanitarian context hones in on utility and, as such, other dimensions of usage are glossed over or even ignored.

Similar explorations have been taken with UNHCR’s own connectivity work. This is articulated clearly in the initial vision statement of the Connectivity for Refugees initiative:

“UNHCR aims, through creative partnerships and smart investments, to ensure that all refugees, and the communities that host them, have access to available, affordable and usable mobile and internet connectivity in order to leverage these technologies for protection, communications, education, health, self-reliance, community empowerment, and durable solutions.”

Connecting Refugees, 2016

From this statement, UNHCR emphasises its own programmatic goals and ties its connectivity interventions closely to such goals. In the report there are limited references to Persons of Concern’s own goals and priorities with regards to connectivity and digital technology, demonstrating a disconnect between these two ideas. Since this vision statement, UNHCR’s Innovation Service has modified the vision of the initiative, now broadened into a Digital Inclusion programme, taking a rights-based approach that focuses on inclusion and emphasises agency, in line with UNHCR’s Community-based Protection approach to uphold the ‘right of every person to participate in deciding and shaping their lives’:

“That forcibly displaced people have the right to be included in a connected society, and to choose on what terms they connect and access digital technology.”

Connectivity for Refugees Website, UNHCR, 2021

This change is the first step in examining this disconnect. UNHCR’s Innovation Service seeks to more deeply examine the factors linked to Persons of Concern’s adoption and utilisation of digital technology, focussing on leisure factors that have — up till now — only been superficially examined. ‘Leisure factors’ includes but is not limited to social engagement with friends and family online, movies and entertainment, online gaming, digital romance and sexual interactions. Through this understanding, we believe it would be possible to modify and reimagine connectivity interventions across UNHCR, maintaining broader goals and strategic objectives of UNHCR’s action and mandate, while speaking more closely to communities desires and preferences through meaningful consultation and participation, irrespective of sex, age, ethnicity and other attributes.

The importance of digital leisure

“The very fact that people with scarce resources engage in the same sorts of leisure activities as people who are much better off tells us, quite simply, that this very ordinariness can provide better insight into the day-to-day motivations of people who are poor.”

Arora — The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West

In her book, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West, Payal Arora highlights how the traditional dichotomy of leisure and work are considered as opposites, something that fails to acknowledge the overlaps and shared motivations that drive people to engage with technologies. Digital spaces blur the boundaries between the two even more, as people’s preferences and passions stimulate their online activities and participation.

Leisure has typically been defined on the basis of time, attempting to separate leisure time from other, more constrained activities such as work and self care. However, as Bitman and Wajcman note in this journal article, time presents its own limitations as the experience of time differs between men and women due to the overlapping care tasks and responsibilities. Moreover, the possibility to engage in two activities simultaneously and the fragmentation of leisurely time due to interruptions means that for many, dedicated, pure leisure time is not a reality and this should be considered when attempting to understand digital leisure. As Arora argues, the spatial nature of leisure is reflected by the ways in which digital spaces — e.g. social media platforms, dating and gaming apps — enable and constrain different modes of communication, sociality and entertainment.

It is also important to note that digital leisure often involves labour that derives from the data-based business models of platforms, such as filling a form to provide one’s data to create a profile or flagging unsuitable content on social media platforms. In this sense, the critical exploration of digital leisure by humanitarian organizations allows for a more nuanced understanding of people’s digital lives.

Digital leisure has been established as a central aspect in the digital lives of individuals around the world, displaced populations should not be different. The question for humanitarian agencies and governments aiming to provide more effective aid to refugees should be: Why not digital leisure?

For decades, the fear that free access to technologies would lead to ‘unsavory,’ ‘indecent,’ or illegal activities by aid recipients have rendered digital leisure as a secondary and marginal aspect in initiatives aimed at helping refugees. To date, mainstream media perpetuates this moral panic about the ‘bad refugees’ infiltrating the host countries, often resulting in policies that limit access to connectivity. These beliefs have driven humanitarian aid to become more utilitarian, considering more productive goals, with problematic results, as anthropologist Payal Arora argues, “To assume that everyone will use their internet access with productive intent is to assume that human beings are geared to pursue a Western notion of social progress”.

Many technology-driven, top-down solutions especially geared towards disenfranchised populations such as refugees and asylum seekers have resulted in thousands of apps and dead technologies rendered useless because they prefer to access and use mainstream apps. A refugee-centred approach that considers displaced populations’ preferences in the use of digital media rather than paternalistic perceptions of their digital needs constitutes a disruptive opportunity to bridge the digital divides of access and usage:

“The digital leisure divide draws much-needed attention to motivation, driven by pleasure, sociality, and entertainment. This recognizes happiness as part of the equation of a good life, online and offline.”

Arora, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West

Research on digital leisure has found that it is an important aspect of the lives of marginalised populations and one that is necessary to cope with difficulties, and ultimately to achieve desirable outcomes in terms of mental health, digital skills, and possibly new forms of sustained livelihoods. However, the possibilities of digital leisure in the forced displacement context have not been sufficiently explored and thus, the present work becomes a relevant first step in this area.

Digital technology and leisure as a gateway for wellbeing and protection

“Agencies and foundations that want to benefit them need to pay attention to the fact that people who live in circumstances of scarce resources are, in the most fundamental ways, just like everyone else. They are proud. They are sexual beings. They look for love. They use humor as a powerful coping mechanism (…). They hunger for entertainment. Moreover, they do not sit and wait for the market to recognize them as legitimate consumers of leisure. Instead they creatively forge ahead, using whatever technology is available to them.”

Arora, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West

Through this research, supported generously by the Government of Luxembourg, UNHCR and Erasmus University Rotterdam hope to explore how refugees perceive and define leisure activities in relation to their use of digital technology. This builds on the Innovation Service’s own direct experience in different locations from Brazil to Uganda where refugee communities have spoken with enthusiasm consistently on the leisure dimensions of digital inclusion, everything from making music and broadcasting online to finding out the football results through their mobile. By directly engaging with communities and observing their use of digital technology we seek to understand what role leisure plays in refugees’ desire to adopt and utilise digital technology, including how these use cases and applications compare and contrast to the oft-promoted ‘utilitarian’ use cases. As usual, we’ll be disaggregating findings based on age, gender and diverse characteristics — taking an intersectional approach — to determine the extent to which these different dimensions have an impact on the nature of leisure activities when using digital technology.

Along with these core objectives there are a number of hypotheses that we are looking to test through the research, specifically whether:

  • Leisure use will be a key factor for adoption (both access and skills) and sustained utilisation of digital technologies and connectivity;
  • Leisure usage will bring indirect benefits in the medium-longer term to both individuals and their communities beyond their immediate entertainment and enjoyment;
  • Digital leisure can shape the future of work among the displaced population and perhaps give birth to new forms of livelihoods through the building of online networks, opportunities, visibilities, and communities.

What might desire-based programming look like?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll release the inception report that builds off Erasmus University Rotterdam’s extensive work in this field to date, applying existing theories and literature to unique contexts of forced displacement. This will help us build a strong framework and methodology for the practical work that will lean on digital ethnographic and participatory approaches in Brazil, delivered with support from local UNHCR partners AVSI and Fraternidade sem Fronteiras (FSF).

As with all its research endeavours, the Digital Inclusion programme ultimately seeks to utilise the learning and evidence to inform its programming. This might see a shift from speaking purely around ‘needs’ in a humanitarian situation to being cognisant of the ‘desires’ and ‘aspirations’ of the communities we serve. Through appropriate digital inclusion interventions that consider these points, a world of possibilities and opportunities opens up beyond a narrower utilitarian focus.

For those interested in exploring these issues with us, or engaging in this project, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Stay tuned for more information on the research as it progresses.



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UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR Innovation Service


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