Future Tense

Digital Access Isn’t a Luxury for Refugees

It’s a necessity.

Refugees sit around a charging station of surge protectors with phones plugged in.
Rohingya refugees wait to get their mobile phones charged at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia district on Oct. 7. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

If you are one of the roughly 25 percent of Americans who say they are online “almost constantly,” it can be easy to take connectivity for granted. But accessing information and communicating in the digital space isn’t so easy for millions of refugees and displaced people escaping global conflicts, economic depressions, and climate change. Thanks to legal restrictions, high costs, and the unavailability of networks, they often find themselves unable to connect with one another and the rest of the world.

The Rohingya population of Myanmar is one of these groups. Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted groups at present. According to a March estimate, about 671,500 of them have fled to Bangladesh since August to get away from the brutal oppression of Myanmar’s army and the local militias. For Bangladesh, the situation is not so new. Since the late ’70s, persecuted Rohingyas have taken refuge in the border areas between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Even before the latest influx of refugees started, about 400,000 Rohingya refugees were already living in Bangladesh. The host communities within Bangladesh have been quite welcoming to the Rohingyas, and the makeshift refugee camps are havens from the threats of violence, death, rape, and starvation. But even there, they face an ongoing struggle for ensuring basic needs like food, shelter, health care, education, and information and communication, especially in the digital space. Having fled their homelands due to violence, they are now further being cut off from the rest of the world, right when they most need connectivity.

My research team and I saw the digital access issue up close and personal when we met Rahim (not his real name), a 15-year-old Rohingya boy. While fleeing the violence in his home state of Rakhine, he told me, he lost his father and two brothers. He nearly lost his right leg to a machete slash by a Burmese paramilitary member.

Rahim misses his school badly. He wants to study. He also wants to communicate freely with his remaining family members scattered over different camps across Bangladesh and other parts of Southeast Asia. But both mobile and internet service quality in and around the refugee camps are very poor. Even if connectivity were better, it wouldn’t matter: As a refugee, it is essentially impossible for Rahim to purchase a SIM card and go online via any mobile network in Bangladesh. There, if you want to purchase a SIM card, you have to provide official identification documents as well as biometric information. The lack of such official documents precludes Rohingyas from legally purchasing any local service provider’s SIM cards. The government does offer free telephone booths for refugees, but they are scarcely used due to poor service. On top, there are no refugee-produced programs catering to the Rohingya population. The refugees I saw in Bangladesh wanted very much to communicate with one another—to collect and share information—but they had no access to the equipment, money, or systems to do so.

According to GSM Association, which is a global organization that represents the interests of nearly 800 mobile phone service operators and more than 300 telecom related companies, millions of displaced people around the world are struggling in the same way. According to the UNHCR, refugee families spend up to one-third of their household income on connectivity. Worldwide, refugees are 50 percent less likely to have access to internet-enabled phones in comparison with the general population, and 29 percent of refugee households have no phone connectivity. “Where is the Wi-Fi?” and “Where do I get a SIM card?” are two of the top five questions asked by refugees landing in Europe, up there with “Where can I get milk for my baby?” and “Where can I get registered?” Researchers have also reported that refugees use net and mobile networks more than the respective host communities and that mobile banking is increasingly important. Syrian refugees are using several mobile applications—including Refunite, Gherbtna, Ankommen, Tarjemly, and Integreat—to access useful information and resources during their mass migration to Jordan, Turkey, and the rest of Europe. These mobile and net-based applications help refugees locate their loved ones, find information on emergency health care and shelters, and request real-time translations from local languages to their own.

And just like in the Rohingya refugee camps, accessing these resources can be extremely difficult. Furthermore, in every refugee crisis, women, seniors, and children are disproportionately left out of the loop of information and communication access services, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. A recent study conducted by Data & Society, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Leiden University supported this observation. According to their research, women are less likely to own a mobile phone than men. I saw something similar in Rohingya refugee camps, where most households had a mobile phone (active or not)—but it was clear that, overwhelmingly, they belonged to men. Displaced people’s dire need to have connectivity has created black markets of communication solutions, which overcharge, are insecure, and are rife with false information.

Rahim, the young Rohingya boy who shared his story about survival and struggle in the digital space, reluctantly confessed that he uses an “illegal” Bangladeshi SIM card, provided at a much higher price by a local vendor. Although it gives him only infrequent and poor access to the internet, it still allows him to be in touch with his family members located in other refugee camps and outside of Bangladesh. He also used WhatsApp to download video clips in his feature phone. The examples he showed us offered a mix of facts and fictions, some true news and some propaganda related to the violence against Rohingyas by the Myanmar army. He also watched clips with others at a makeshift mobile repair shop in his camp. In the absence of legal net accessibility, such downloaded and disseminated videos turned out to be the primary source of information of their home country for Rahim and others of his age group.

We later visited the mobile repair shop Rahim mentioned, seemingly a digital oasis in the midst of poor information and communication technology, or ICT, infrastructure. Seeing the high demand of information and communication, some people from the host community invested to establish similar mobile repair and battery charging shops all over the camps. We found these installations to be popular destinations for young Rohingya men and heavily segregated against women. The majority of these shops are powered by diesel generators and managed by Rohingya youths, who better understand the refugees’ communication needs than the camp-based humanitarian service providers do.

Some efforts to fix this are currently underway. Local nongovernmental organizations, such as Young Power in Social Action, have started establishing networks of safe spaces for women, children, adolescent girls, senior citizens, and physically disabled refugees. But these safe spaces would be more useful if their support services were streamlined using localized ICT applications and shared via ad hoc or regular intranets, which will at least ensure connectivity within the camp areas.

Syrian refugees can offer a model here. They demonstrated the importance of hybrid solutions, combining both online and offline components that can provide useful information for refugees in their own language and be accessible to the most marginalized groups within the refugee communities. Given the legal issues and security concerns within the host communities, refugee camps and these safe spaces can similarly be connected using local intranets or low-power FMs, which have fewer resource requirements and are relatively easy to install. According to the Inter Sector Coordination Group in Bangladesh, humanitarian service providers are already planning to expand the limited coverage and programming service provided by a local FM radio station.

But that isn’t enough: The government of Bangladesh needs to legalize refugees’ use of SIM cards. This change would ensure better transparency in the communication process and can save this vulnerable population from further exploitation from the third-party service providers. Moreover, the ICT solutions provided need to take into consideration the alarmingly low level of literacy among the Rohingya refugees (approximately 5 percent), which was not the case in other major refugee crises in recent times. Just as refugees need food, water, shelter, and health care, they need access to information. To keep it from them is to keep them separate from the world, to make it harder for them to rebuild their lives.