How might we best assist refugees? The mobile phone

Written by Paul Newall

The world is facing one of the greatest humanitarian crises since World War II. The United Nation’s Syria Regional Refugee Response estimates there are 4.39 million registered Syrian refugees globally – with the total number being much higher[1] – and that is not even including the refugees from other countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Eritrea. While there have been many instances of mass migration in human history, there is one key difference to today’s crisis, and it’s a trend that may provide an avenue to reaching, connecting, and serving those in-need: the mobile phone.

A recent article stated “we can call the huge numbers of refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 the first digitally-driven mass-migration.”[2] To highlight this point, Wael, a Syrian migrant, told Agence France Presse “our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food.”[3] According to one study, 86% of Syrian youth in refugee camps have access to a smartphone, and agencies have made it relatively easy to get SIM cards once inside.[4] In Jordan’s Za’atri Syrian Refugee Camp, for example, researchers found that 89% of respondents owned a mobile handset and 85% owned at least one SIM card.[5]

an_aerial_view_of_the_zaatri_refugee_camp

An aerial view of Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan (Photo credit)

At a time when ignorance and fear about the refugees is at an all-time high (Hello, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz), the mobile phone can prove the tool to reach these populations and provide a useful lens through which we can better understand them. Through mobile phones, governments/donors can connect to those in-need, allocate cash-transfers, provide health and re-settlement information, and break down any language barrier. We can understand their social circles, their needs, their concerns, and their journey to where they are now.

The above use cases are possible if we find solutions to current questions or concerns (including Anti-Money Laundering /Combating the Financing to Terrorism, fraud, etc.). Using industry best practices, as well as leveraging recent technological innovations, we can move towards the financial inclusion of refugees while maintaining the integrity of the financial ecosystem.

There have been reports of border crossing agents removing mobile phones from refugees upon arrival to their country – it’s hard to imagine a more shortsighted action. We are in a moment when the immediate needs and concerns are so pressing – donors and governments must prioritize utilizing the one common connector between us all: the mobile phone. Responses can be better targeted using the data from the refugees’ mobile phone. Such a targeted, data-driven approach was not available in mass migrations of the past; we must make sure we make the most of this opportunity.

Following this article, we will explore elements such as security, efficiency, technology and inclusion with a series of articles that highlight solutions that could yield big results in assisting refugees.

[1] http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[2] http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2015-09/smartphones-mobil-phones-refugees-help

[3] http://qz.com/500062/the-most-crucial-item-that-migrants-and-refugees-carry-is-a-smartphone/

[4] http://news.psu.edu/story/350156/2015/03/26/research/ist-researchers-explore-technology-use-syrian-refugee-camp

[5] Maitland, Carleen and Ying, Zu, A Social Informatics Analysis of Refugee Mobile Phone Use: A Case Study of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp

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