Humanitarian service and digital technology: How 5G brings new direction to humanitarian work

(Female students in Kenya use tablets. The tablets, loaded with learning materials, are provided as part of the Instant Network School (INS) project. © UNHCR/ Sebastian Rich)


(Female students in Kenya use tablets. The tablets, loaded with learning materials, are provided as part of the Instant Network School (INS) project. © UNHCR/ Sebastian Rich)

With the rapid development of digital technology and the internet, humanitarian work is also undergoing many innovative changes, especially in the protection of refugees around the world. Mandated to protect and assist refugees, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) seeks to become a digital leader in the humanitarian sector in the 5G era. Improving digital service for refugees will strengthen our ability to provide protection and assistance – from registration to digital identity, resettlement and service delivery. Digital approaches can also empower refugees through education, training and remote employment opportunities.

Sivanka Dhanapala, UNHCR’s Representative in China, has pointed out that the internet and technology offer huge opportunities to assist refugees, including in the areas of data management, education, employment and public awareness.

Sivanka Dhanapala, UNHCR Representative in China © UNHCR Photo

Data changes the life of refugees

Dhanapala stated that 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 us understand, describe, and measure the problems we are trying to address. UNHCR and partners need data on refugee arrivals, registration and resettlement in order to deliver our assistance.

Government policy-makers need data for policy formation, and academics need it for research. We also need to share data to raise awareness and mobilize action.  The internet has changed the way we collect and share data, as well as enabling us to connect with many more sources of data.

Internet promotes education for refugee children

Refugee enrolment in primary schools is 63% against the global ratio of 91%. But the proportion of refugees enrolled in secondary education is even lower at 24%, two-thirds lower than the level for non-refugees, compared to the global rate of 84%. Only 3% of refugees are enrolled in higher education, against a global rate of 37%. The internet can help refugees overcome some of the geographical barriers they face, e.g. enabling refugee students to access high-quality learning platforms and university programmes across the world. Dhanapala cited an 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 INS established in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, and Tanzania.

A Syrian refugee in Egypt collects UNHCR's Winter Cash Assistance after receiving an SMS notification. © UNHCR/ Pedro Costa Gomes

Biometric Registration Technology strengthens identity recognition and resource allocation

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

UNHCR collects biometric data such as fingerprints and iris scans from arriving refugees to avoid multiple registrations.  And regular updates of data help us evaluate refugees' on-going needs, enabling each refugee to receive tailored packages of support. In Jordan, iris scanning is used to verify Syrian refugees’ identities when they receive UNHCR’s monthly cash assistance via ATMs, avoiding bank cards and PIN numbers altogether. At present, the use of cash assistance can ensure that 93% of the donations are directly used by the beneficiaries, offering them the dignity of choice instead of receiving pre-determined relief supplies.

 Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR. © UNHCR Photo

Digital identity advances use of cash assistance

Providing refugees with cash enables them to fulfil their needs in a dignified manner and contributes to the local economy, while digital identity systems can help us to target assistance accurately to reach the right beneficiaries. Cash assistance makes the displaced less likely to resort to harmful coping strategies, such as survival sex, child labour, family separation, and forced marriage.

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.

More successful stories on technology and cash assistance

Dhanapala hopes that in the future 5Gwill 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. We would love to develop more innovative and creative solutions for refugees using the internet.

To find out more information on the amazing work that UNHCR is undertaking to use technology to help people worldwide, click here.