With the Syrian crisis in its fifth year the number of Syrians (internally displaced and refugees) striving for basic human needs is on the rise. This number was estimated in July 2015 by the UNHCR and the European Commission to be 12 million, 52% of total Syrian population in 2011. Currently, 33% of total Syrian population is internally displaced, while 17% of Syrians are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Additionally, it was indicated that 86%, 55% and 45% of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, respectively are living below poverty line. There are no statistics available on internally displaced Syrians living below poverty line.
The basic needs of the internally displaced and refugee groups were found to be similar. Reports and surveys indicate that food, clean water and safety come on the top of the priorities followed by education, livelihood, shelter, health services and others. Nevertheless, internet connectivity was not identified by these internally displaced and refugee groups as one of their priorities. However, this report identified internet connectivity as the common factor that links all the previously mentioned needs together.
Without doubt, the shortage in funding is the biggest issue that holdbacks the UN Security Council, UN affiliated organizations and NGOs from fulfilling their commitments toward a growing number of refugees worldwide and particularly in Syria. However, on the contrary to providing refugees with basic needs, building a reliable internet infrastructure (not like the ones in Syria and neighbouring countries) is a win-win case for refugees and supporting NGOs. It is a one-time investment with long-time benefits.
At a time when conflict has risen to an all-time high with devastating consequences, it is important that initiatives leveraging technology are undertaken. Information and Communications Technology can play a critical role in responding to conflicts and disasters setting the foundation for improving societies from the ground up. The positive impact of technology can help alleviate humanitarian challenges like the refugee crisis in Syria.
Connectivity enabling technologies have developed into a force of positive change, particularly in times of crises where such technologies are being regarded as a mean to improve everyday life, provide life-saving services and serve as an enabler of empowerment for individuals that are economically or socially marginalized. As these technologies grow, its vast potential to be leveraged for humanitarian purposes grows along with it. Now more than ever, ICTs can assist those in dire circumstances, such as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), by facilitating their access to the information and services most essential to their survival and wellbeing. There is an unprecedented opportunity for innovative and socially responsible organizations such as NetHope to utilize this technology to improve conditions within their areas of operation.
The analysis for The Case for Internet Connectivity in Non Formal Refugee Camp Environments done by Group 5 has led to the following conclusions about the role and the influence (good and bad) of internet connectivity on the lives and wellbeing of refugees and internally displaced groups.
- Connectivity Impacts on Education
This report discussed in details the creation of a generation of lost, frightened, helpless, hopeless and uneducated children. Additionally, discussed how the conventional schooling systems are failing to accommodate the needs of refugee children since children are finding hard time adapting with both, the schooling system and local students. Furthermore, the report indicated how refugee children are discriminated against, humiliated, bullied, and abused verbally and physically without being able to retaliate. This in addition to the financial situation of many families forced the majority of refugee children 5-15 years of age to drop schools to work and earn money to support their families (education vs. survival).
Internet connectivity has the potential to provide distance learning and learn-as-you-go solutions using virtual (informal) learning environments and platforms as an alternative to the conventional schooling systems. These solutions provide students with a playful, dynamic, engaging and spontaneous experience never exposed to. Internet can help refugees to reach out to the world, share personal stories and break their isolation.
E-learning provides the opportunity for students (17 years old and above) the opportunity to continue their higher education (a university or a college degree) and reach out to a number of e-services such as funding opportunities and scholarships.
- Connectivity Impacts on Health Services
Internet connectivity and ICTs are used during times of difficulties to organize and provide medical care for people in need (e.g., refugees and IDPs). For example, but not limited to: medical records keeping (birth certificates and health records); distribution of medical supplies; remote medical consultations; and provide statistical data on patients.
- Connectivity Impacts on Emotional Well-Being
Internet connectivity has the potential to virtually re-connect and reunite refugees with family members and friends in home countries and around the world. Internet provides entertainment, thus distraction from the reality they live and can enhance the confidence and self-esteemed of refugees by improving their social interaction, breaking the monotony and isolation. All these factors may improve the emotional well-being of refugees and strengthen their faith and trust in a better future.
Internet helps to enhance security in camps through e-surveillance cameras and thus helps in maintaining security in camps.
- Connectivity Impacts on Improving Employment Opportunities
Internet connectivity helps enhancing the employment opportunities of refugees through online searching and applications. Many Syrian refugees and displaced persons are highly trained skilled labours. However, the internet literacy rate among refugees are high, thus the need to educate them and/or improve their internet skills is essential to access to continuously evolving e-services.
5. Connectivity Impacts on Enhancement in Aid Operations
Internet connectivity is the basis of all cooperation and coordination among aid organizations, leading to an easy streamline work among NGOs for a better, faster and more efficient decision making and distribution of aids and services. Using internet, NGOs stay in touch with refugees, provide day-to-day services and get feedback data for further improvement.
- Connectivity Impacts on the Safety of Refugees
The positive impacts of internet connectivity and its applications on the life of refugees are undeniable. However, ICTs have a dark side to it too. Sadly, many illegal activities are being performed using internet. To name few: prostitution, under-age marriages, pedophilia, human trafficking and smuggling, organ trade, radicalization of men and women for terrorist groups. It was found that internet is used extensively by criminal groups to connect “victims” (children, under-age brides, etc.) with “predators”. Nevertheless, the biggest security threat facing all the countries surrounding Syria, the EU and the rest of world is the increased level of radicalism among refugees and the potential of those radicalized refugee groups and individuals to reach the Western World and cause security issues.
Finally, internet connectivity has many benefits and has the potential if used properly to improve the life and the well-being of refugees and displaced groups.