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While Italian coast guard vessels chart the waters between Libya and Italy looking for stranded boats at sea, at the heart of their operations is a sophisticated control room in Rome that picks up distress calls at sea.

For asylum seekers making the crossing, the Thuraya number – a shortcode saved on satellite phones that helps locate boats – may be their only chance of survival in the high-risk lottery to enter Europe.

Setting the Scene

This year, at least 85,000 migrants and asylum seekers took the central Mediterranean route to Europe. For them, access to mobile technology such as Thuraya is not just a matter of convenience. It is often the difference between success and failure and sometimes between life and death. This will become even more acute over the summer months, when more people tend to be on the move.

While the Mediterranean crossings have captured the imagination of mainstream media, the reality is that over a quarter of the world’s refugees live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and most remain close to their home countries.

In a recent article for Samuel Hall I explored the stark geographical divide between refugees with access to mobile applications and the internet and those without. About 90 percent of mobile applications developed for refugees target those hosted in Europe and the Middle East.

With the support of the Humanitarians Innovation fund (HIF), over the next few months I will be visiting different displaced communities in Kenya and Uganda to better understand what is causing this divide, how people on the move and refugees in settlements use mobile technology and to what extent current solutions meet their needs.

Based on this research, my team and I will analyse how mobile-based tech can move beyond Western-focused solutions to better address the multifaceted needs of refugees living in East Africa.

Beginning our research

In order to improve technological access, we must first understand why so few mobile services have been developed for refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poor or incomplete mobile connectivity across the region, lack of access to smartphones and low levels of technical literacy are all cited as factors that restrict refugees access to mobile services in East Africa. This is not always true.

It is important that we separate fiction from fact.

Firstly, refugees are increasingly connected. Global levels of mobile network coverage for refugees closely follow national averages. In Kenya, over 72 percent of refugees have access to 3G connectivity, while the corresponding number is 22 percent in Uganda. The rest of the refugee populations in both countries are covered by 2G. Services delivered over 2G are more restricted than 3G, and this can limit the support they offer.

Rates of connectivity increase for refugees living in urban centres. On average, 90 percent of urban refugees are covered by 3G networks.

If not connectivity, perhaps limited access to mobile phones is behind the digital divide? The answer is more complex than it seems. Refugees’ access to mobile phones in East Africa is higher than expected, but the type of mobile device matters, especially smartphones capable of running applications and browsing websites.

Although the number of refugees who have access to a smartphone is not known, over half of the services for refugees recorded in Samuel Hall’s recent article are built around a smartphone application – no smartphone, no access.

Are these apps what refugees in East Africa really need, based on their living environment, social circumstances and the politics of their host country? Almost no hard data exists on what types of apps and innovations refugees in East Africa need.

On the road. A refugees travels through Kenya on her way to Nairobi. Credit Katie G Nelson.

What does this mean?

Against this backdrop there is a strong consensus among aid agencies and researchers that we need more information to understand how mobile technology can better support refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) – particularly in East Africa, where many communities have experienced protracted displacement over the past 20 years.

We must understand how the needs of refugees in East Africa differ from those heading to and living in Europe.

Healthcare, education and access to financial services are all areas where mobile technology can deliver cost effective access. For example, many more mothers can benefit from pre- and post-natal advice on childcare delivered through their mobile phone than would be possible from face-to-face consultations with a limited number of health workers.

Understanding refugees’ needs, access to phone and confidence in using mobile-driven services is not a simple task. The best way to find out is to ask the refugees.

What are we doing?

Samuel Hall, in partnership with REFUNITE, has embarked on a new research project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) to explore how refugees traveling within East Africa use mobile technology and to what extent current solutions meet their needs. The study will assess the impact of mobile phone coverage, access to smartphones and technical literacy in how refugees use mobile technology.

Mobile device penetration amongst refugee populations at key settlements in Kenya and Uganda

This diagram shows Mobile device penetration amongst refugee populations at key settlements in Kenya and Uganda

We will conduct field research in Kenya and Uganda that together host some 1.7 million refugees. Both countries are two of the largest refugee hosts in East Africa (alongside Ethiopia and Sudan). Similar to Greece and Italy, these countries lie on the frontline of a regional crisis and will likely continue to receive large numbers of refugees in the years to come.

Keeping these aspects in mind, we will visit refugee settlements such as Kakuma in Northern Kenya and Nakivale in Southern Uganda that host a diverse range of nationalities from across the region, including refugees from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their diversity provides an opportunity for us to better understand the role that mobile technology plays for refugees in the region and how it can support them once they reach settlements.

The results will shed light on how people working with refugees in East Africa can better support the development of innovative solutions that are uniquely tailored to refugees’ actual needs.

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