The Impact of Internet connectivity on the Needs of Refugees and Displaced Groups

Introduction

In times of humanitarian tragedies and crises, the impacted groups have urgent need for information in addition to the basic needs (food, water, shelter, health, etc.). Trustworthy information empowers people in crises and helps them clarify rumors, avoid misleading information, eliminate confusion and reduce stress and vulnerability. Thus, people will be able to make more informed and more appropriate decisions for themselves and their families for a better survival rate (1).  It was observed that refugees use mobile phones (calling and SMS) and internet (social networking and APPs) as the main channel of communication between each other in hosting countries and across the border in Syria. However, these services are unaffordable, unreliable and slow on both sides of the borders (1).

A study by Knoos (2015) exploring the use of internet and associated technologies by Syrian refugees in Jordanian refugee camps indicates that 86% of youth own a mobile phone and more than 50% use the internet at least once a day. Internet is mainly used for social media and news. It was found that the use of internet among Syrians in formal and informal settlements is greater than before the crisis when they were living in Syria. This could be regarded to the fact that Syrian youth were busier working, studying and socially interactive when were in Syria (2).  Internet connectivity is recognized by DPs and refugees to have the potential to improve their livelihood by allowing refugees to stay in touch with family and friends in Syria and worldwide (3).            

The Education Crisis of Syrian Children in Neighbouring Countries (Education of Syrian Refugees is a Priority)

One of the most devastating consequences of the crisis in Syria is the rapid loss of human capital, mostly the highly educated and productive individuals. however and according to Creative Associates International (2015) Syrian refugee children and youth are facing a “serious gap in education opportunities” resulting in losing the chance to catch-up academically with their peers in Syria and hosting countries and the potential to become a “force of change” in the future (5; 4). Thus, education for Syrian children and youth is vital; not because it is the only hope for their future, but attending school will provide them with basic skills and help them eventually overcome the traumatic experience they went through in such early age (6; 7; 8). Furthermore, schools help children to avoid risky, danger and illegal activities (9). Children are the helpless group that is the most affected by the Syrian crisis. Yet often their needs are neglected in the mist of all the other more important priorities. The Syrian crisis created a generation of lost, frightened, uneducated and hopeless children. A generation lack all the skills and the know how to be a part of Syria future (9). The road toward achieving such a dream is difficult for many reasons but not limited to (4; 10):

  1. Overcrowded local schools: that can only accommodate a small number of refugee children.
  2. Language barriers: Lebanese and Turkish curriculums are taught in French and Turkish languages not in Arabic as in Syria.
  3. Lack of required resources: Funding, tools and experience educators
  4. Informal schools have improper structure and accreditation form local educational systems
  5. Safety, security and restricted movement of refugees.

However, the biggest barrier is the large number of children dropping or not attending schools to work and earn money to support their families (education vs. survival). A study by Creative Associates International (2015) confirms this fact and highlights the number of in and out of school children and youth in hosting countries (Figure 1).

80% in Lebanon, 63% in Turkey, 45% in Jordan and 47% in Egypt. 

Figure 1: Percentage of school-age Syrian refugee children out of schools in hosting countries (adapted from Creative Associates International, 2015).

The Lebanese government started an admirable and creative initiative to teach refugee children after the official school hours “p.m. children” to help all the out-of-school children (6; 10). So far, 20% of total Syrian school-age children are benefiting from this approach. Children attending evening classes require more attention, because most of them did not attend school since they left Syria. Others are homeless, some of them have illiterate parents and most of them work all morning, which make them unable to concentrate, thus there progress move in a slower pace (10). One of the biggest reasons for why traditional schooling systems are failing to accommodate refugee children is that children are finding hard time adapting with others and local students are not making it easier for them. Refugee children are discriminated against by other children and sometimes by the school, humiliated, bullied and physically, verbally and morally abused by other children and teachers without being able to retaliate fearing they may be kicked out from school. Such behaviours are negatively affecting the refugee children ability to study and succeed (11). Since the start of the Syrian crisis UNICEF continues to work with local and international NGOs to provide funding to small scale informal and temporary schooling solutions and education platforms to many of the refugee and displaced children and youth.  These schools are run and managed by volunteer Syrian teachers to teach the Syrian curriculum in the Arabic langue (6). These schools are aimed to help children to start dealing with their fears, open up and express themselves, improve their communicational, social and emotional skills in addition to reading, English, math and maybe computing. Seeing the academic and emotional progress of those children is the ultimate reward for NGOs and volunteer teachers.     

Connectivity Impacts on Education

Considering the issues (as mentioned-above) associated with the traditional educational methods, e-education may provide an alternative teaching method in situations where direct contact between children and teachers is impossible. Technology and connectivity can provide refugee students with a playful, dynamic, engaging and spontaneous informal learning environment and platforms “e.g., TSF educational centres[1]” where students can interact with students from other camps and gradually reaching out to the world breaking their isolation and insecurity as a result for the crisis in Syria (8; 12). Children using internet started to sense their freedom again by understanding the meaning of the term “global village” a virtual world without boundaries and borders. In camps where such service is provided, it was observed that students are keen to learn new ideas while looking for a better future ahead.   

Aysha a 15 years old refugee (lives in a camp near the Syrian-Turkish borders) says “The internet access here is essential to me as it allows me to communicate with other children my age outside the camp….. I love learning new things, especially French and science. The applications on the tablets make learning far easier …………. This centre has really changed my life. Since I have been a student here, I feel special. All of a sudden, there is a light in my life that was not there before, and despite my sadness and sorrow, I am so happy to take part in these classes.” (8). Kamal another student in a TSF educational centre says “My life changed when I become a student at school. In the past I hadn’t any idea about computers but now I can use tablets and I can surf the internet even have my own e-mail. And I find that the most interesting thing in the centre is the educational applications especially the science and Arabic applications” (8).  In an another Turkish camp, kids attend school where information and communication technology (ICT) and internet are taught as part of the school’s curriculum (8).

E-learning can provide refugees with the opportunity to continue their higher education (university or college). Many higher education students, whom ran away from Syria to neighbouring countries, before completing their education do not have the financial means to finish what they started. However, e-learning is one of the options that could help refugees to finish their higher education (13).     

The biggest barrier standing in the way of implementing e-learning platforms in formal and informal refugee settlements is the availability of a reliable communication infrastructure that could provide high speed internet in affordable prices. A study by Creative Associates International (2015) assessing the status and reliability of internet and mobile phones infrastructure in hosting countries and refugee camps (as demonstrated in Table 1) indicates that Syria and hosting countries internet penetration vary from 24% to 61% with internet speeds from 1.4 – 4.4 mbps in almost all the assessed countries. This may cause a lot of problems implementing the streaming activities and e-learning platforms. In camps, only NGOs have access to high speed internet. For mobile phones penetration, the study indicates that 26-75% of refugees own cell phones (8).

Table 1: State of internet and wireless infrastructure in refugee camps in the Middle East (Creative Associates International, 2015):

Country Country Internet Penetration Internet Speed Country Mobile Penetration Percentage of refugees own cell phone Mobile Network Type
Lebanon 61% 2.5mbps 64% 51 – 75% 3G
Turkey 45% 12.0mbps 90% 56 – 75% 3G
Jordan 41% 4.4mbps 101% 26 – 50% 3G & 4G
Syria 24% 1.4mbps 96% 75%

of youth have cell phones

3G & 4G
Egypt 44% 2.6mbps 113% N/A 3G
Inside Camps Internet penetration is for NGOs only. Refugees have very limited access, except via mobile network.

However, e-learning can be done with minimum use of internet using low-cost computing devices with pre-installed educational softwares (e.g., One Laptop per Child, Endless Mobile and Libraries without borders) as indicated by Peel (2015)(14). These educational platforms can help empowering children to educate themselevs.

Connectivity Impacts on Training

Many of the Syrian refugees lack the knowledge and the skills required to find a job that could help in financially support his family within the hosting countries. “Life is Simple with Internet” is a training that is initiated by IMPR Humanitarian a Turkish organization that trains Syrian refugees in computers’ repair and maintenance. Additionally, this initiative aims to reduce internet literacy rate among refugees to improve access to continuously evolving e-services (15).

Connectivity Impacts on the Welfare of Refugees

Support to Life a Turkish organization that specifically supports “urban refugees” or refugees who do not live on formal camp environments. Internet and digital technology is used to communicate with refugees to secure proper distribution of aid materials and to insure immediate evaluation of their work. Refugees are provided with cash-cards that are automatically topped up on monthly basis to be used to by basic needs from selected retail outlets. By using this technology, refugees are regaining some of their dignity and at the same time data are collected on what really refugees need and in what quantities. Furthermore, Support to Life communicates with refugees using mobile phones to stay in touch with refugees, provide services and get feedbacks and measure impacts (16).

 

Connectivity Impacts on Heath Services

In the field of health services, internet connectivity and online platforms are perceived vital for doctors, medical teams and refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. Internet connectivity is used for (8; 17):

  1. Record-keeping refugees in registration centres;
  2. Supporting distribution of medical supplies and food;
  3. Remote medical consultations and sharing expertise with doctors abroad;
  4. Efficiently managing multiple medical services (e.g., ICU and recovery unit);
  5. Providing statistical data on patients;
  6. Cloud storage refugees’ most valuable documents (e.g., birth certificate and health records)

Rising Risks for Syrian Refugees and Displaced Groups

The high unemployment rate, the lack of basic needs (e.g., shelter, food and clothing) and human living conditions force Syrian families in formal and informal camp environments to desperately find ways to generate some income despite all potential risks and threats (5; 6; 9; 11).  For example, many Syrian highly skilled refugees are working in many occupations with lower pay-day than local skilled labours that are already having hard time finding jobs and increase the hostility toward refugees. Others don’t have the know-how or the proper training to work in hosting countries due to lack of education and training. Thus, these families and individuals may fall as a prey to organized crime groups that exploit them in many illegal activities such as child labour, transporting illegal goods, human and human organs trafficking, recruitment into armed groups, under-age forced marriage and prostitution. The numbers of under-age marriages had drastically increased during the last 3 years as a protective measure for families to “safe” their daughters from abuse and reduce their financial burden. Many children in urban settlements and refugee camps face sexual and gender abuse too (9; 11; 18). The lack of security and accessibility to many of refugee locations in Syria (hard-to-reach areas) and neighbouring countries forced many NGOs to stop providing their services to whom in need (19).

Child, Under-age Marriages and Sexual Abuse

Aid workers in many Syrian neighbouring countries are warning that an increased number of Syrian women and girls are at high risk of sexual abuse, human trafficking and forced prostitution sugar-coated by legalized forced, child and under-age marriages (as early as 13 years old) “rape marriages”. The majority of “husbands” are much older Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian and wealthy men from the GCC Countries (e.g., KSA). This is a growing problem among Syrian girls in refugee camps and urban settlements. Many of these girls are either become divorced after a short period of time and may return to their families pregnant or forced to work in prostitution by their “husbands”. Statistics indicate that under-age marriages increased 110% between 2011 and 2013. According to a report by Save the Children (2014) Incidents of child marriages among Syrian refugees were increasingly reported in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. This is why the Jordanian governments stopped registering marriages for Syrian girls below 18 years old (20; 21). The hope is that other hosting countries will follow the lead of the Jordanian government. The majority of human trafficking (matchmaking and under-age marriages) are executed by matchmakers (individuals and religious groups) that use internet to connect prospective husbands “predators” with prospective brides (victims) (20; 21).

Human Trafficking

Thousands of Syrian Asylum seekers are desperately trying to illegally reach one of the EU countries risking their lives and the life of their beloved ones crossing the sea from Turkey and Libya toward Greece, Malta and Italy. Human traffickers (organized crime group) are paid thousands of dollars by Asylum seekers to reach a safe haven in the EU. Unfortunately, many die before reaching the EU shores (22). The millions of dollars collected by human traffickers could be used for funding terrorist activities in EU and other countries worldwide (23). 

Almost all the above mentioned risks are avoidable if enough funding is available; unfortunately the UN and other international NGOs continue to appeal for funding from donor countries but often are not met, due to lack of political will (5). Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of UNCHR funding in Syria and Middle East between refugee programs and IDP projects.

Figure 2: UNCHR budget for the Middle East and Syria in particular 2015 (UNCHR, 2014; UNICEF, 2013)(24; 25).

Works Cited

Internews. (2013). Lost: Syrian Refugees and the Information Gap. Bangkok, Thailand: Internews. Retrieved from http://www.internews.org/

Koons, S. (2015, Mar. 26). IST researchers explore technology use in Syrian refugee camp. Retrieved from Penn State: http://news.psu.edu/

Zain. (2015). Connecting Separated Families: Providing Hope Through Connectivity. Amman, Jordan: Zain.

Creative Associates International. (2015, Apr. 23). Leveraging Technology for Syrian Refugee Education. Retrieved from Open Ideo: https://openideo.com/

Al-Qraibi, M. (2015, Jan. 20). How can we help Syria’s refugees rebuild their lives? Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://agenda.weforum.org

Tookey, M. (2015, Apr. 14). Inside a Syrian refugee camp: ‘Education is the only hope for children’. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/

Rainey, V. (2015a, Apr. 23). Informal classes teach refugees academic and emotional skills. Retrieved from Open Ideo: https://openideo.com

Télécoms Sans Frontières [TSF]. (2015, May 17). Education for Syrian Refugee Children is a Priority for TSF. Retrieved from Télécoms Sans Frontières: http://www.tsfi.org/

World Vision International. (2014a). Stand with Me: Children’s Rights, Wronged. Middlesex, United Kingdom: World Vision International. Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org

 Rainey, V. (2015b, Apr. 23). Public schools offer second shifts for refugees. Retrieved from Open Ideo: https://openideo.com

 World Vision International. (2014b). Children’s Report: Stand with me, Our Uncertain Report. Middlesex, United Kingdom: World Vision International. Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org/

 Alshalabi, H. (2015, Apr. 22). Learn Anytime Anywhere: Astudent centred e-education platform. Retrieved from Open Ideo: https://openideo.com

 Moser-Mercer, B. (2014, Mar. 12). A Learning Hub in a Refugee Camp. Retrieved from Coursera : http://blog.coursera.org/

Peel, N. (2015, Apr. 22). Provide access to ignite self-educatio. Retrieved from Open Ideo: https://openideo.com

 IMPR Humanitarian. (2015, May 12). Life is Simpler with Internet Training: to Syrian beneficiaries . Retrieved from IMPR Humanitarian: http://imprhumanitarian.org/en

 Eckert, M. (2015, Mar. 10). Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Digital Technology Gives Them Some Dignity Back. Retrieved from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

 Refunite. (2014). Healthcare: A Dire Need for Technology-Based Solutions in Refugee Camps. Retrieved from Refunite : http://www.refunite.org

 Save the Children. (2014). Too Young to Wed: The growing problem of child marriage among Syrian girls in Jordan. London, United Kingdom: Save the Children. Retrieved from http://www.savethechildren.org/

 Ullah Baig, E. (2015, Apr. 23). Tele-Education Center (T.E.C): A feasible, efficient and safe pathway to education in refugee camps. Retrieved from Open Ido: https://openideo.com

 Harper, L. (2014, Jan. 24). Syrian women in Jordan at risk of sexual exploitation at refugee camps. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/

 Abu Toameh, K. (2013, Dec. 30). Syrian Refugee Camps in Turkey – Human Traffickers – 30 Minute Rape Marriages – Syrian Girls Being Purchased. Retrieved from Mercy Wings: http://mercywings.org.ly/

 Mayr, W. (2014, Nov. 28). The Price of Hope: Traffickers Profit as Asylum Seekers Head for Europe. Retrieved from Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/

 Speigel. (2015, Jan. 28). Ghost Ships: Turkey Becomes Springboard for Syrians Heading to Europe. Retrieved from Speigel: http://www.spiegel.de/

  1. UNCHR. (2014). UNHCR Global Appeal 2015: Syrian Arab Republic. Kuwait: UNCHR. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/
  2. UNICEF. (2013). Syria Crisis: Education Interrupted. Global action to rescue the schooling of a generation. Amman, Jordan: UNICEF. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/
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