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Reconnecting Refugees: A Case Study on the Impact of Wi-Fi on Refugee Communities

Posted on August 31, 2017 by Dr. Tom Farrell

Editor's Note: The Patterson Foundation invested nearly $400,000 to support NetHope's work to place Wi-Fi in the refugee camps in Greece in 2016. The following is a report on the impact of having done so.

About the report: In March 2017, NetHope commissioned a case study to determine the impact of free Wi-Fi connectivity on refugees in Greece one year after the first installation of the internet connectivity there. Dr. Tom Farrell, a Cambridge-based independent qualitative research consultant, was retained to conduct the study. The findings are based on field observations and interviews from a representative sample of eight refugee camps near Thessaloniki in Northern Greece.

The report analysis focuses on telling the refugees’ stories, and includes unedited quotes from interviews as well as photographs.
Methodology: During refugee camp visits, Dr. Farrell conducted in-depth interviews to determine refugee attitudes and behavior relating to Wi-Fi and connectivity services provided by NetHope and its partners. Refugees were the primary target group for the study, but interviews also included refugee camp management, NGO staff, volunteers, and local contractors.

Partners in the Syrian Refugee Connectivity Alliance included Cisco, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, The Patterson Foundation, and The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Report goals:

  • To assess the social impact of the NetHope refugee connectivity provision in Northern Greece from the refugee or beneficiary perspective;
  • Investigate refugee behavior and attitudes related to information and connectivity services (e.g., usages, purposes, issues);
  • Gain deeper understanding of how the information services provision is impacting refugee community stakeholders, including families, individuals, and camp/NGO staff
To demonstrate how innovative IT solutions can reconnect refugees, as well as provide access for self-help, entertainment, and seeking employment opportunities.

Key findings:
Refugee experience and need for connectivity
  • Refugees often experience family displacement, so for them, knowing their loved ones’ whereabouts and safety is paramount, prioritized over clothing and health care.
  • Adult male refugees overwhelmingly spoke about their desire to work, and to feel a sense of self-worth through working. Many have technical skills and others are professionals, including teachers and engineers. A significant portion of those interviewed had found ways to earn money by working for NGOs at the camps, or were volunteers.
  • Affordability, digital literacy (particularly for women), and network availability are all significant barriers to refugee connectivity.
Social impacts of refugee connectivity
  • Adult refugees, without exception, and in all the camps, reported that Wi-Fi played a crucial role in transforming their lives and providing them with a lifeline in the first days after arriving.
  • Refugees primarily used Wi-Fi to connect with family and friends, relax, be creative, and learn.
  • Though education is vital for refugees to improve their circumstances, basic school facilities are lacking.
  • Wi-Fi is considered vital by the camp teachers, particularly when teaching language. Teachers use connectivity to access multimedia materials, videos, and apps, which supplement books and printed worksheets. Wi-Fi also provides the opportunity for students to self-study.
  • Camp schools offered classes in a variety of languages (English, German, and Arabic), and teachers and students alike benefitted from using apps like Google Translate, Duo Lingo, and Memrise on their mobile phones.
NGO and camp managers’ perceptions of Wi-Fi
  • NGO staff at the camps cited Wi-Fi as vital for resource management; communicating with colleagues at other camps; communicating with loved ones and friends back home; ensuring accurate medical record-keeping for refugees.
Negative impacts of refugee connectivity
  • Though there are many upsides to Wi-Fi for refugees, at times the demand outstrips the supply.
  • There is concern among NGO staff that refugees can become withdrawn if they spend too much time on their devices.
  • Some interviewees expressed concern about that the risk that users could be exposed to pornography; potential trafficking or grooming; cyber bullying; fake news; violence, and identify theft. (Editor’s note: Networks managed by NetHope block pornography websites.)
  • Future efforts should focus on increasing Wi-Fi capacity to reduce bottlenecks.
  • Consider creating a universal, “smart” system to aid camp staff in managing camp operations (food distribution, education curricula, etc.).
  • Wi-Fi is important for enhancing education in the camps, and suggestions included developing accredited curriculum for volunteers and staff; creating a program of training and certification; enhanced ICT training for refugees; and refugee-delivered training opportunities.
Final Report from Dr. Tom Farrell
The final report from Dr. Farrell is over 75 pages long and is undergoing copy edits at this time. It will be published in August 2017.

About NetHope
NetHope empowers committed organizations to change the world through the power of technology. NetHope, a consortium of 50-plus leading global nonprofits, unites with technology companies and funding partners to design, fund, implement, adapt, and scale innovative approaches to solve development, humanitarian, and conservation challenges. Together, the NetHope community strives to transform the world, building a platform of hope for those who receive aid and those who deliver it.

About Dr. Tom Farrell
Dr. Tom Farrell is an independent researcher based in the United Kingdom. Tom has many years of experience as a business practitioner and academic. He has undertaken research in the field of business ethics and social marketing and has presented at leading global academic and NGO conferences in the U.K., Ireland, France, Norway, Thailand, the U.S., and Australia.

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