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Refugees in the digital age

By Mia Hem

Digitalization allows us to be only a click away from the ones we love through a laptop or a smartphone. For displaced people, such connectivity has a greater meaning - receiving a message from a relative they love and they haven’t seen in a long time, or a message about a job opportunity in the city they have settled in. For agencies and NGOs that protect, support, and advocate displaced people, connectivity entails the possibility to connect and support communities in real time in ways that have not previously been available because of distance or accessibility. As advocated by the Global Compact Refugees (GCR), digitalization should play a positive role in the registering, documenting, education and financial inclusion, with the final goal to accommodate the digital strategies to the displaced people’s daily life. This requires a reevaluation of how organizations apply social science research to understand the links between individuals’ social, economic, and political activities, and how to transfer these to the digital realm. Understanding these gaps between daily life and institutional perceptions can teach us practical lessons about how to adjust digital technologies to improve the well-being of displaced people based on the reality of their everyday life.

Using digital technologies to support displaced populations comes, however, with challenges. It must be inclusive, not only in terms of community input when developing a new technology, but also assure that displaced people have access to the same services as their host-country peers. A way to achieve this is by advocating for greater legal inclusion of displaced people in host countries, as giving them legal rights to access regular financial and educational services, in order to reduce the need for closed loop solutions that prevent displaced people from integrating into their host countries. Taking into account the daily digital experiences of displaced people into the analysis of different technology interventions will result in a greater idea of the extent to which digitalization improves displaced people’s well-being and circumstances.

Identity documentation, cash transfers, and education are fundamental to the daily lives of displaced people. Identity documentation bestows protection and access to resources; cash transfers support self-sufficiency, and education keeps young people on track and adult-learners informed on labor market skills. Moreover, the more we learn about the sociological and behavioral aspects of digitalization in displaced people’s lives through multi-disciplinary research and inclusive innovation practices, the greater the opportunity to develop genuine inclusive digital services. Bringing together the best of social science research on digitalization with new digital practices within humanitarian organizations, new technologies can have significant impact on accomplishing the goal set forth by the Global Compact on Refugees.

Creating the technology solutions is most likely the ‘easiest’ part of digitalization . We know how to create software and hardware to support digital technologies such as cash transfers, build content management databases or store digital records. Basic research can assist in identifying sociological aspects of using technology in displacement situations. Furthermore, there is the need to build social solutions based on regulatory complexity on the commercial infrastructure by the governments. The UNHCR ID cards can be an example of how cooperation between regulators and the humanitarian community can improve the situation of the displaced people in the future. Regulators must also engage on topics of displacement.

Organizations will increasingly use digital technologies in their daily operations, thus improving displaced people’s access and use of smartphones, applications, and the internet. The digital era is extraordinary as it has in a short period of time gone from being big and expensive hardware to small and cheap. Basics of coding can be taught to people with a wide variety in formal education. To contribute to the goals of the Global Compact of Refugees, digitalization has to be more concerned about how quickly organizations can learn about the digital and idiosyncrasies of the communities and individuals, rather than building new technological tools. By keeping displaced people at the center of digitalization we can avoid the risk of becoming techno-centric, by creating solutions appropriate to the needs of communities and individuals, which, in turn, support the greater Global Compact of Refugees goals of greater inclusion and self-reliance for displaced people.

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