Food, shelter and connectivity: Helping to meet the basic needs of today’s refugees

New research from Accenture and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) underscores the need for connectivity—and identifies three areas crucial to delivering it.


​Digital solutions have revolutionized the way much of the world lives and works. Refugees should be no exception. For these vulnerable populations, connectivity can be vital to maintaining family connections, staying informed and secure, supporting economic self-sufficiency, and organizing and educating themselves. Many private sector, public sector and non-governmental organizations (NGO) stakeholders have begun developing apps and services that use mobile and Internet technology.

Yet refugee households are 50 percent less likely than the global population to have Internet-enabled phones—and more than twice as likely to have no phone at all. Only when refugees are connected can global stakeholders unleash innovative models for delivering the communication, security and support services refugees need. 


​To assess refugee connectivity trends and usage, the UNHCR and Accenture surveyed and interviewed refugees and UNHCR staff around the world. We also performed geospatial mapping of global network coverage.

The research yielded 10 key findings that point to significant challenges and opportunities for better connecting refugees with resources and with each other:

  1. Connectivity = survival. Refugees deem connectivity to be a survival tool and will make large sacrifices to be connected.

  2. Security matters. Refugees, UNHCR staff and partner organizations all believe that connectivity can aid refugee safety and security. There are endless possibilities to use phones to access information on protection issues, humanitarian assistance and health services. However, there are also risks associated with refugees exposing their identities online and as such data security safeguards must protect against cyberattacks on organizations holding sensitive information.

  3. Left out: rural refugees. Only one in six rural refugees (17 percent) live in areas with 3G coverage, compared with 29 percent of the global rural population. Twenty percent of rural refugees have no mobile coverage at all—double the proportion of the global rural population. Almost all refugees living in rural camps have no, or very limited, access to electricity, further hindering access to connectivity. In stark comparison, the vast majority (90 percent) of refugees living in urban centers are covered by a 3G network.

  4. High costs are a big barrier. Refugees’ financial constraints result in much lower rates of phone ownership and Internet access for these households.

  5. In cities, mobile is a must. Compared to those living in rural communities, refugees in urban areas are much more likely to own a phone (68 percent versus 22 percent). This is driven by availability of networks and energy, along with reliance on mobile phones for security and protection, information and communication.

  6. Language and digital literacy create a barrier. With most digital apps written in English, refugees’ language and digital literacy levels represent another obstacle to connectivity.

  7. Basic access is better than no access. All levels of connectivity—including mobile and fixed broadband—can benefit refugees. Even a 2G cellular network and access to a basic cellular phone can make a difference.

  8. Culture can be a barrier, too. Cultural and societal challenges associated with “inclusively” connecting women can be magnified in refugee communities.

  9. Connectivity can improve services. UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations have enormous opportunities to better use connectivity to drive innovative service delivery. Although Facebook, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp are the most popular social networking apps among refugees, humanitarian organizations make little use of these low-cost methods to communicate with them.

  10. Work is under way, but there’s more to do. The private sector has already begun investing in transformative connectivity initiatives and working with NGOs and refugee communities—but these efforts need to be scaled and expanded.

"Refugees in Jordan spend 10 to 20 percent of their cash distributions on connectivity, prioritizing it over other important needs. In Tanzania, refugees often sell off a portion of their monthly food rations to buy air time for their mobile phones."
"A regional analysis shows that 75 percent of refugees live in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia—regions (mainly developing countries) that typically have lower 3G coverage than the developed world."


Based on the research findings, UNHCR and Accenture have identified three key areas of focus for enhancing refugee connectivity. Together, these areas form the basis of the Global Strategy for Connectivity for Refugees—a new program that UNHCR is launching.

Availability: Improve access to networks and reduce regulatory barriers

Roughly 40 percent of both the refugee population and the global population lack access to a 3G+ mobile network, most of them in rural areas. Enhancing mobile and Internet networks will benefit not only refugees but also the communities hosting them. UNHCR will improve availability through four interventions: enhancing the mobile network operator infrastructure, collaborating with governments to expand network infrastructure and access, collaborating with Internet service providers and other technology/communications companies to improve infrastructure, and making targeted investments in infrastructure.

Affordability: Reduce price of connectivity and expand community access

Virtually all refugees struggle to afford devices, mobile data plans and Internet access. Prioritizing affordability interventions where possible, the UNHCR will focus on negotiating refugee-specific plans and discounts, subsidizing device and mobile/Internet plans, and deploying and expanding community Internet-access centers.

Usability: Enable richer usage of the Internet through training programs and relevant digital content and services

The survey of UNHCR staff around the globe revealed that six of the top 10 challenges to refugee connectivity are related to usability issues such as lack of digital skills and lack of relevant information in a variety of languages. To overcome these challenges, the UNHCR is focused on delivering training to improve refugees’ digital literacy and encouraging humanitarian and aid organizations to create content that’s relevant to refugees.

For most people, digital technologies make it easier than ever to access information and stay in touch. It’s time for refugees to enjoy reliable, secure and affordable connectivity—so they can communicate with their families. Improve social and economic opportunities. And enhance self-reliance.

"Connectivity plays a critical role in improving the lives of refugees and their host communities. Bringing connectivity to them will require coordinated action across governments, civil society and the private sector."


Connectivity through Digital Technology for Refugees

Filmed at the World Economic Forum, January 2017, this panel discussion explores the use of digital innovations and connectivity to reach and help refugees access needed services.

To positively impact the lives of people in the developing world, Accenture combines the power of its global strategy, technology and industry capabilities with its international development experience through Accenture Development Partnerships. A team from Accenture Development Partnerships worked with UNHCR to assess the connectivity challenge that exists for refugees and to identify ways to engage the private sector to help address this.




UNHCR, Accenture Study Finds Internet, Mobile Connectivity a Lifeline for Refugees

An Internet-enabled smart phone can literally power the future for the world’s 65 million refugees and displaced persons.

Read the news release





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UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency: