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Communication Is Aid: Refugees Need Wi-Fi

On opening day at the Lagadikia refugee camp in northern Greece, the first Syrian families arrived tired and scared.

May 25, 2016

By Lauren Woodman, CEO, NetHope

On opening day at the Lagadikia refugee camp in northern Greece, the first Syrian families arrived tired and scared. Like millions of other refugees, they still faced uncertain futures. Wearing the weary expressions of people who have endured incredible hardship, the first question they asked the United Nations staff might seem surprising: “Do you have Wi-Fi?” It sounds like a frivolous concern for people who have survived harrowing journeys across seas and borders. But for refugees, Wi-Fi lets them send “I am safe” messages to family and friends and enables access to information — and that is as important as food and aid supplies.  

We are used to thinking of food, water, shelter and healthcare as aid. But far less often does the conversation focus on the need for Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity. Since the NetHope team began setting up connectivity in Greek refugee camps last year, thousands of residents have stressed the importance of an Internet connection, a sentiment echoed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When NetHope engineers installed Internet in the Cherso camp, they met Atallah, 74. “I had not talked to my daughter in two years,” he told them. Atallah fled the suburbs of Damascus after a bomb struck his home and killed his wife. Now he can regularly message his six children, who resettled in Europe, to assure them he is safe. For people like Atallah who have lost nearly everything, that connection to family is critical. The Internet is the only way to stay connected.

Last year CDAC Network, a collaboration of humanitarian, media, development and technology organizations, whose members include the UNHCR, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), proclaimed that accessing information is as important as accessing food and shelter. Connectivity and information go hand in hand in easing human suffering. Together they transform the way refugees survive a crisis. NetHope is an organization that convenes the world’s largest international nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and technology giants for global impact. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, solving the connectivity issue and providing connectivity kits and technical support for nonprofits that are working along the migration routes assisting refugees with mobile connectivity has been the team’s mission. It is estimated that a third of all refugees carry smartphones but remain out of touch without data plans and Wi-Fi. An Internet connection is a beacon of hope as they attempt to contact family, find information and, most importantly, apply for asylum. We now know that communication is also aid.

So far this year, 156,000 refugees have arrived in Greece seeking international protection. They are required to apply for asylum online and make appointments via Skype. For the asylum process to work, refugees and the organizations that provide assistance must have access to Wi-Fi. Recent media report indicate there has been a substantial decrease in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Greece since the closure of the Macedonian border. This may be temporary. As the weather gets warmer, the Mediterranean Sea is calmer and the journey will be less harrowing, meaning a new influx of refugees is expected. Refugees are being diverted to Turkey and elsewhere where hundreds of resettlement camps are being built. Turkey currently hosts almost 3 million refugees, and tens of thousands more are expected.

In past conflicts, the weary arrived at Europe’s docks and borders isolated, disconnected and easily separated from family. It doesn’t have to be this way today. NetHope’s NGO members and partners including Microsoft, Google, Cisco and Facebook agree. Together we have installed Internet access points in camps and transit centers benefiting an estimated 350,000 refugees. It’s a huge step forward, but only scratches the surface. More access points are needed as the refugee communities grow and dozens of new camps are built. At this week’s inaugural World Humanitarian Summit, in Istanbul, Turkey, it is critical for connectivity to be elevated on the aid agenda. Governments and public and private sector members must resolve to close the gap by funding and resourcing connectivity to ensure it is not perceived as an amenity, but rather as an imperative for responding to this 21st century emergency. If they do so, it will be a reason to hail the event a success.  

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