Professor Alexander Betts has been speaking with BBC Radio 5 Live's Phil Williams about the use of technology such as smartphones by refugees – a new phenomenon that has recently come to the media’s attention as the UNHCR has been handing out sim cards to Syrian refugees. As Professor Betts says, “Refugees are often empowered, they often use technology, they often innovate to address their daily challenges – as part of that we see in refugee camps across the world, in people who embark on journeys, the use of the internet, the use of mobile phones.” And he says, international organisations such as UNHCR and UNICEF are now recognizing the potential that technology has for transforming humanitarian assistance and empowering refugees to help themselves.
Betts cites a study he and his team have undertaken in Uganda that looked at the economic lives of refugees in camps and in urban areas, and found that the large majority had mobile phones and many had access to the internet. These they used, as people do elsewhere, to stay in touch, engage in business, access information etc.
As Betts states, “Humanitarianism is transforming. It’s no longer about delivering water, food, clothing and shelter to refugee camps around the world. It’s often about enabling people to help themselves… to get access to things like basic infrastructure, including connectivity.”