Staying connected is just as important to refugees as food, water and shelter. Data plans are so expensive that refugees spend about a third of their incomes to get online, according to a UN Refugee Agency study published Wednesday. In Tanzania, some refugees are willing to sell up to 10 days worth of food rations to buy a month of data for their phones, the study found.
The UN said the internet and smartphones allowed refugees to get crucial information, communicate with family members, access essential services and connect with their communities. “In the world we live in today, Internet connectivity and smart phones can become a lifeline for refugees,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement accompanying the study.
“Connectivity can help broaden the opportunities for refugees to improve their own lives and pursue a vision of a future that would otherwise be denied to them.” The UN’s conclusions come amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II. More than 65 million people around the world have been pushed out of their homes by conflict. Many are in makeshift camps as they seek permanent relocation.
More than 1.1 million refugees fled to Europe from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugee’s struggle has been widely documented through technology, haunting the world through social media.
The role of technology in the crisis has been the subject of a six-week investigation by CNET News, which found refugees in Greece using smartphones to find safe havens and communicating through networks on Facebook and WhatsApp. In Sweden and Finland, connectivity has helped refugees find jobs. In a French refugee camp, 400 people log on to a free Wi-Fi network every day. The UN report said a lack of internet access threatens to cut off refugees from valuable resources that supersede health care, education and clothing in importance for many.