Aid Groups Say Refugees Need Internet as Much as Food

Migrants charge their cellphones at the Keleti railway station in Budapest last month. "If technology can play a role in making [their] journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected," says Kate Coyer, "then they're worth investing in

Aid worker Isaac Kwamy, head of the emergency response group NetHope (an alliance of aid groups and corporations that provide technology services during humanitarian disasters) says that few migrants and refugees call for food and water when he visits camps. What they were literally asking for was WiFi access and a place to charge their cell phones. Kwamy says that the need for technology during their crises came as no surprise.

Asylum seekers use the internet on their smartphones as a tool when planning their journey towards Europe and it is also a necessary tool when making asylum applications. Mobile apps like WhatsApp and Facebook help these people keep in touch with family members. Kwamy told Reuters of one case where a man was only able to speak to his daughter in two years through Facebook through WiFi services provided by NetHope.

In Greece, asylum seekers can only book an interview with the Greek Asylum Office through  the web-based phone service of Skype. Oftentimes there is only a window of an hour in order to submit applications before Skype lines close. Only asylum seekers in Athens can apply in person at pre-registration sites.

The UNHCR agrees that internet connectivity is crucial. “It’s a gateway to information and a gateway to the right services like the asylum procedures,” said Katerina Kitidi, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Greece.

Aid workers say that they have never before seen such a reliance on the internet during humanitarian disasters. “It’s as important as eating food, drinking water, being treated (medically), being given a tent,” says Kwami, pointing to the importance of having access to information via the internet. Far from being a luxury, the internet is crucial to refugees who need it to plan their journey and, in some cases, it can save their lives.

For this reason, the UN passed a resolution to amend Article 19 in June, making internet access a basic human right.