The Pursuit of Refugees’ Inclusion in Digital Connectivity

UNHCR Innovation Service
Aug 6 · 10 min read

How UNHCR is ensuring refugees have the right to connect in the digital age. The first in a two-part series on the how and why of digital inclusion.

By Amy Lynn Smith — Writer + Strategist

Illustration by Noah Mukono.

How long could you go without feeling the urge — or the need — to pick up your smartphone or a digital device? An hour? A day? A week? You couldn’t call anyone or send a text. You couldn’t look up information you need or make online financial transactions. It could stop you from carrying out essential tasks and, for some people, it’s downright unnerving to feel so disconnected.

What if that was all taken away from you indefinitely? For millions, that’s exactly what happens when they are forced to flee their homes, if they even had such technology in the first place. Others may bring digital technology with them, but aren’t allowed to sign up for a service connection based on various country requirements.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is working to ensure that refugees and other people of concern, such as asylum seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs), and stateless people have the same right to access connectivity as the communities that host them. Even with the help of humanitarian organizations, being displaced brings countless challenges. But being disconnected means refugees have no contact with the world outside their new home, no way to interact with UNHCR for assistance — a particularly problematic issue during a pandemic lockdown — and no access to other services many others use daily such as receiving or paying money.

Most important of all: UNHCR can’t achieve its ultimate goal of helping people of concern be fully integrated wherever they’re living if they are disconnected from the rest of the country, let alone the world.

According to John Warnes, an Innovation Officer (Digital Inclusion) at UNHCR’s Innovation Service, the journey to improving digital connectivity began more than 10 years ago, as UNHCR began delivering programs to improve access, despite mobile devices being far less common than they are today. In some areas, there were community centers where people of concern could use shared computers, but as Warnes says, that was just “scratching the surface” of something that would become significantly more important.

With the huge growth in the use of mobile devices in the years since, making them integral to people’s everyday lives, UNHCR recognized a need to bring individual connectivity to refugees and other people of concern, giving them access to communication and information, not to mention cash assistance and other support.

That led to the development of UNHCR’s Innovation Service Digital Inclusion Programme. A primary goal is to make sure refugees and the communities that host them are included in a connected society. Led by the Innovation Service, the program began by bringing together the efforts of UNHCR’s Connectivity for Refugees initiative, which focuses primarily on access to digital channels and connectivity, and UNHCR’s Innovation Service’s work on Communicating with Communities.

The project team and partners quickly realized that technology was only one barrier to accessing connectivity. As Warnes explains, there’s a need for cellular towers that connect phones to networks — something many providers were initially reluctant to erect in rural areas, not recognizing there could be hundreds of thousands of refugees eager to use their services. But, as with many innovation projects, it’s about far more than technology.

“You can provide all the cellular infrastructure and devices you want, but if it’s illegal in a country for refugees to register a SIM card, that’s a barrier that can’t easily be overcome,” Warnes explains.

While a few countries still have no formal requirements for registering SIM cards, the majority of countries around the world have strict identity requirements before anyone can register a SIM card. The laws and regulations differ from one country to the next, but even official refugee ID cards issued by host governments aren’t always included in the list of acceptable identification in many countries.

In 2018, the Innovation Service embarked on a journey to better understand and address these policy and regulatory barriers to connectivity, alongside other teams in UNHCR headquarters and country teams that saw the reality and scale of the challenge in their day-to-day operations.

A step-by-step approach to expanding this work, exploring innovative ways to address the challenges, and implementing solutions is yielding good results that are moving from one country to the next.

Step 1: Do your research

Illustration by Noah Mukono.

As with most innovation, there’s research required to understand the intricacies of the problem you need to solve — and to explore and experiment with potential solutions. To support the research, the Innovation Service brought in new staff and consultants such as Erika Perez Iglesias, an Associate Innovation Officer with the Innovation Service who is based in Panama, and an outside consultant, Aaron Martin, who is a researcher at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands where he’s based, with expertise in data justice and legal and regulatory barriers to access for people of concern.

The team, which included multiple other units within UNHCR’s headquarters, undertook a study of 20 UNHCR country operations — bringing together the country teams as well as outside partners such as the global mobile communications industry association GSMA — to create a detailed report entitled “Displaced and Disconnected.” Initially published in 2019, it focuses largely on the issue of country ID requirements that created barriers to refugees obtaining SIM cards. The research is ongoing, adding more and more countries, but the initial report was a game-changer.

“This is clearly an issue that’s quite important to UNHCR, because one of their priorities is to help refugees integrate into their host communities,” Martin says. “When you’re communicating with communities, you increasingly rely on mobile phone infrastructures to do interviews with refugees, for example, or share access to critical information with them. In some contexts, UNHCR provides identity credentials that could be used for the purposes of issuing a SIM card, but in many places, some of these regulatory issues are quite cumbersome.”

Step 2: Put your plan in action

Illustration by Noah Mukono.

The first country where the research was applied in a real-world context was Uganda, one of the many African countries studied. Even before the report was published, the need for more advanced connectivity in settlements was obvious, says Damjan Nikolovski, former Community Connectivity Coordinator in Uganda. A key was building trust and educating mobile operators that refugee settlements are, in fact, a potentially lucrative market. Gaining more business for mobile operators was never UNHCR’s goal, but instead, an incentive for them to expand their coverage and service. To provide concrete evidence, the team mapped large areas and shared boundaries of the settlement population that weren’t covered by any kind of mobile signal.

“We had to inform mobile operators and telecommunication companies about just how many people are in refugee settlements,” Nikolovski says about collaborating with them to expand coverage and service. “The possible expenditures refugees might make were big unknowns in the beginning. In Bidibidi, for example, which mobile providers considered ‘in the middle of nowhere,’ there are more than 250,000 people of concern living there, not to mention perhaps 50 humanitarian partners working there.”

Over the last three years, UNHCR’s work with mobile operators in Uganda has led to more than 80% 3G coverage in the northwest region and the introduction of some 4G coverage, where there was previously either only 2G coverage or none at all.

UNHCR’s effort to engage mobile operators was central to this success, Nikolovski says, but working closely with the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the regulatory body, was equally critical.

“They issued new requirements for licensing for national carriers in Uganda that say by 2021 all of the telecommunications companies that want to be national carriers must have more than 95% geographic coverage of the country.”

But perhaps the greatest achievements of all, Nikolovski says, were policy developments UNHCR advocated for alongside GSMA, recognizing that if refugees do not have legal access to SIM cards further digital inclusion efforts would be futile. Through the Displaced and Disconnected research, UNHCR discovered a gap in Uganda’s telecommunications regulation, which stated that you could only register a SIM card with a refugee ID card. At that time, due to backlogs in card issuance caused by the constant influx of refugees and strained capacities, more than 600,000 refugees didn’t have access to these credentials.

So UNHCR and GSMA advocated to the Ugandan government to accept not only the official plastic refugee ID card, but also what’s called a family attestation letter, which contains all the same information that will go on the ID card when it’s produced, including unique ID numbers. With the support of various partners, UNHCR worked with the UCC to allow refugees to use not only ID cards and family attestation letters, but also requests for asylum filed when a refugee first enters the country. All of these now permit people of concern to obtain a SIM card in Uganda.

“Since the changes in August 2019 through March 2020, estimates showed nearly a 50% increase in SIM registration by refugees, up from about 30% or 35% of the total adult population,” Nikolovski says. “That’s the greatest indication that what we did there worked.”

Step 3: Recognize and share the results of your efforts

Illustration by Noah Mukono.

There’s no question that what the Uganda team accomplished is not only a benefit for local refugees, but an inspiration to other country operations.

In terms of benefits, not only can people of concern connect with their loved ones, improved connectivity allowed the Uganda operation to set up more robust feedback channels, including a referral and resolution center where refugees can call humanitarians for advice or problem-solving. Equally important, this connectivity has given refugees access to mobile receipt of funds, as UNHCR moves from provision of goods to cash-based interventions.

“It’s more modern and secure to transfer funds to a user’s mobile money account — a substitute for banks, which aren’t yet based in settlements, and can be used for shopping,” Nikolovski says. “The refugee response also provided financial literacy training to help people save and invest money.”

The success in Uganda proves that digital inclusion for refugees is possible. With guidance from the Digital Inclusion Programme, which includes UNHCR’s overarching goals in this regard and an implementation toolkit, other countries are moving forward, too.

Step 4: Bring connectivity to other countries, one by one

Illustration by Noah Mukono.

“We’ve had this nugget of success in Uganda, but it’s been difficult to get that level of traction elsewhere,” Warnes says. “It’s been challenging to identify the right levers to pull when engaging governments.”

In Kenya, for example, the work is underway but slow-going. In Kenya, people must present a Kenyan passport or other acceptable forms of ID — which do not include an official refugee ID card. Mobile operators seem to have no reservations about the use of refugee ID cards for SIM card registration, however, the buck stops with regulators on compliance. This includes SIM card registration guidelines and the “know your customer” (KYC) validation requirement through the national population data system: the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). But even then, the services available to refugees are limited to calling services, because of anti-money-laundering laws that restrict access to mobile money.

According to Meshack Mwololo, Assistant Livelihood Officer in Kenya, when the Communication Authority called for a public participation process to comment on the Guidelines for Reporting on SIM Card Registration, UNHCR submitted a request to have a clear, legal framework to let refugees access rights to SIM card registration. UNHCR hopes that refugees with valid Refugee ID Cards will be fully integrated within the IPRS system to allow them to access SIM card registration rights. In addition, UNHCR is advocating for mobile-money access for people of concern, which also include stateless people who may only have birth certificates

Consideration of UNHCR’s submissions has been slow given factors such as COVID-19, but Mwololo hopes they will ultimately be successful.

“The mobile operators are keen to see this from their end, and that gives us leverage because they are leaders in the market and they have an interest in inclusion for everyone,” he says.

UNHCR is also working to bring about similar changes in the Americas. Not only has the original Displaced and Disconnected research expanded to include more Latin American countries, the team there is working to translate the recommendations into tangible actions, Perez Iglesias says.

“The institutional commitment from UNHCR around this topic is more concrete,” she explains. “We are immersed in the process of regional consultations to develop the UNHCR strategy, and one of the pillars is digital inclusion. The organization is realizing the importance of these issues for efficient delivery of services.”

Although she says the work in the Americas is in the initial stages, the challenges are very much the same in terms of existing regulations. The steps to success are very much the same, too: engaging with government regulators, mobile providers, civil society organizations, and other partners. Work is also beginning in the Horn of Africa, as the success in Uganda continues to motivate other country operations.

“In the Americas, when we first began talking about digital inclusion, our focus was on digital skills and literacy rather than the regulatory aspects — it was more about making tools accessible,” Perez says. “But now we’re more and more focused on how including refugees into these national frameworks is the pathway to digital inclusion. It’s foundational for people of concern to access all the digital services we provide now and those that may come in the future.”

Watch for part two of this series, coming soon.

UNHCR Innovation Service

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

UNHCR Innovation Service

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

UNHCR Innovation Service

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