One of the biggest and fastest exoduses of refugees in modern history was when more than two million Rwandese Hutus fled into neighbouring countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa in 1994. In just two days — April 28 and 29 that year — more than 200,000 Hutus crossed into Tanzania at Rusomo Falls. Global TV networks beamed images of endless lines of beleagured men, women and children trudging to makeshift camps in Congo, Tanzania and Burundi, bundles of their humble belongings balanced on their heads.
Most of today’s refugees, in contrast to those of 1994, will count on one prized item among their possessions – a mobile phone.
Humanitarian actors who struggled in their thousands to cope with the Great Lakes refugee nightmare, which included outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, would have wished the mobile phone was the accessory of choice then, as it is today for many refugees.
Smartphones now vital for safety, well-being
A study just released by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and Accenture, a professional services group, found that for many of the world’s more than 65 million displaced people, a mobile phone or access to the Internet are as vital for their safety and wellbeing as are food, water, shelter and medical care.
Mobile phones and Internet connectivity have created opportunities for refugees to have access to critical services like security, protection, education, health care and jobs. For UNHCR, connectivity is a pathway to more innovative ways for extending the reach and quality of its humanitarian response.
This study goes to the core of what communication experts and aid agencies have been trying to achieve since the 2004 Asian Tsunami which killed more than 225,000 people and displaced up to five million others whose homes were destroyed in 13 Indian Ocean countries stretching from Maldives to Somalia.
Lessons learned from the 2004 Asian tsunami
While the world reacted with pledges of aid totalling $7 billion and much of that poured in, there was one key missing element: communication between aid providers and people in need. A BBC report nearly five years later – Left in the dark: The unmet need for information in humanitarian responses – highlighted the ineffectiveness of much of that aid. Those meant to receive it were largely unaware that aid was on the way and had no idea where or how to get it.
Aid agencies and partners used lessons learned from the Tsunami response to put in place more effective two-way communication between people of concern and humanitarian actors during Haiti’s massive January 2010 earthquake that killed about 220,000 people and made 1.5 million homeless. Specialized agencies like the CDAC Network and First Response Radio have emerged specifically to plug the communication gap that dogged the Tsunami response and are doing a sterling job, demonstrating that accurate and timely information is a critical component of aid and indeed a right for displaced people.
While mobile phones and the Internet are by no means the only channels for communicating with refugees, they are clearly at the cutting edge of instant two-way communication today. Which is why a key recommendation of the UNHCR report is for more private sector and state engagement to make connectivity more easily available for refugees at costs many more can afford.
Partnering for better communication
UNHCR is already undertaking a number of initiatives with private sector partners to increase Internet connectivity for refugee populations.
In Greece, where Skype is needed to book asylum application appointments, UNHCR is coordinating with partners to provide Wi-Fi services to refugees in more than 60 locations. In Jordan, UNHCR is partnering with NetHope, Microsoft and the International Office of Migration to provide Skype vouchers to refugees departing for settlement in the United States. UNHCR also facilitates mobile charging services for refugees in Azraq Camp. In Tanzania, UNHCR has worked with Vodaphone to provide enhanced 3G mobile coverage to Nyaragusu Camp.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a forward to the report: “A connected refugee population will enable UNHCR to make better use of the Internet and digital technology for providing e-Learning opportunities, delivering health services and improving self-reliance for refugee communities.”
The release of the UNHCR-Accenture report couldn’t have been more strategically timed.
The United Nations holds its first summit on the global refugee and migration crisis in New York on September 19 while US President Barack Obama weighs in with his own summit the following day at which he will call for greater private sector engagement with the crisis of displacement.
John Chiahemen (Twitter @JohnChiahemen) is a communications consultant with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and formerly a Reuters journalist with 27 years of assignments in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. John has built on his vast media experience spanning broadcast, print and multimedia to offer strategic communication advice to corporate entities and UN agencies over the past decade. He was among the group of professionals who piloted the first major initiative on improving communication with disaster-affected communities in South Sudan in 2011 which transformed into today’s CDAC Network.