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Refugees and the internet

With the rapid development of digital technology and the internet, humanitarian work is also undergoing innovative changes – especially in the protection of refugees around the world.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is mandated to protect and assist refugees, and it’s currently seeking to become a digital leader in the humanitarian sector in the 5G era. SIVANKA DHANAPALA, UNHCR’s Representative in China, points out that the internet and technology offer huge opportunities to assist refugees, including in the areas of data management, education, employment and public awareness.

UNCHR - Dhanapala

The importance of data

According to Dhanapala, by the end of 2018, almost 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Of them, 25.9 million are refugees.

Data plays an important role in refugee assistance. It helps organisations to understand, describe and measure the problems they’re trying to address. So, UNHCR and its partners need data on refugee arrivals, registration and resettlement in order to deliver assistance. Meanwhile, government policymakers also need data for policy formation, and academics need it for research. And data needs to be shared, too, to help raise awareness and mobilise action.

The internet and education

Refugee enrolment in primary school is 63 percent, against a global ratio of 91 percent. The figures for secondary education are even lower: 24 percent refugee enrolment compared to 84 percent globally. And only three percent of refugees are enrolled in higher education, against a global rate of well over one-third.

The internet can help refugees overcome some of the geographical barriers they face. For example, it enables them to access high-quality learning platforms and university programmes across the world. Dhanapala gives one example of UNHCR working with the Vodafone Foundation and refugee communities to develop and adopt the Instant Network School (INS). By providing technology, equipment and online learning materials, under-resourced classrooms in sub-Saharan Africa can meet the needs of mixed-age and mixed-ability learners. Today, there are 31 Instant Network Schools across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Sudan and Tanzania.

Biometric registration and cash assistance

To refugees, registration can mean the difference between life and death – being able to get food, shelter or medical attention, to protect personal safety and to access basic and essential services.

UNHCR collects biometric data such as fingerprints and iris scans from arriving refugees to avoid multiple registrations. Regular updates of data help them to evaluate ongoing needs, enabling each refugee to receive tailored packages of support.

For example, in Jordan, iris scanning is used to verify Syrian refugees’ identities when they receive UNHCR’s monthly cash assistance via ATMs. This means avoiding bank cards and PIN numbers altogether.

At present, the use of cash assistance ensures that 93 percent of donations are directly used by beneficiaries, offering them the dignity of choice instead of receiving pre-determined relief supplies. Providing refugees with cash also makes them less likely to resort to harmful coping strategies, such as survival sex, child labour, family separation and forced marriage. It contributes to the local economy, too.

Since 2016, the programme has helped more than 16 million people in more than 100 countries to build or improve their homes, pay their rent, buy medicine, pay off debts or even start a business, among other activities.

Jordan is the first country to use iris scan technology to grant refugees access to monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR

More successful stories

Dhanapala hopes that, in the future, 5G will bring the same benefits to refugees as to everyone else. In areas like online education – assuming there will eventually be 5G access in areas that host refugees – there will be positive benefits to faster connection speeds and greater ability to download video content.

UNHCR has already been partnering and innovating with the private sector in areas such as shelter and technology, and is aiming to develop more innovative and creative solutions for refugees using the internet.

For more info, visit unhcr.org/hk/en/cash-assistance.

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This article first appeared in the Home Decor issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.