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12 Ways to Manage Digital Risks to Refugee Community Connectivity

By Guest Writer on October 6, 2021

internet access refugee

Connectivity initiatives, which entail the provision of internet and mobile access, can positively impact the lives of crisis-affected people, especially refugees, who require timely access to critical information, communication channels with family members and close associates, and livelihood opportunities during displacement.

The COVID-19 crisis has further demonstrated the value of connectivity access for those seeking critical—and in some cases life-preserving— information, as well as for remote registration and refugee status determination due to physical distancing requirements.

Refugee Community Digital Risks

Connecting With Confidence: Managing Digital Risks to Refugee Connectivity explores how to deliver ‘connectivity as aid’ in a dignified way while managing digital risks to refugees. It draws from an extensive literature review and on-the-ground fieldwork in displacement contexts in Uganda and Kenya.

The report, which is targeted at humanitarian organizations interested in providing connectivity as aid as well as public and private sector actors involved in connectivity provision to refugees, identifies a number of digital risks—from online censorship to cyber threats, data protection risks, disinformation and privacy harms—which demand increased attention and action as connectivity as aid is mainstreamed as an essential form of humanitarian assistance.

Among the research findings were that while

  • Connected refugees recognize the importance of security and privacy online, they often feel powerless to do much about online threats and digital risks.
  • Despite this, they still highly value digital connectivity and expect UNHCR to protect their data.
  • The impacts of digital risks on connected refugees vary significantly depending on age, gender and other characteristics.
  • Policy environments around telecommunications access (e.g. SIM registration) may introduce risks to vulnerable users.
  • Refugees are regularly the targets of online fraud and scams involving social media and mobile money.
  • It was also discovered that serious protection incidents in the physical world are increasingly likely to have a digital dimension to them.

Recommendations for Protection

Community connectivity centers could make important gains by shoring up local security practices and providing better information on digital risks to the broader community. While the threat models of certain users are relatively sophisticated, there is value in providing additional information about the range of existing online threats.

Certain community members are eager to support humanitarian organizations in minimizing digital risk and can play a key role in building the knowledge and skills of their peers.

The report calls on humanitarian organizations to:

  1. Work with community organizations to develop tailored digital risk awareness and training campaigns based on the local context;
  2. Empower early adopters in displacement contexts to support digital risk management;
  3. Sponsor information security knowledge exchanges;
  4. Better police fraudulent activity targeting persons of concern;
  5. Partner with the third and private sectors for increased effectiveness and scale;
  6. Engage with government authorities and local security officials on threats facing refugees;
  7. Advocate for the inclusion of refugee digital protection into national strategies on trust and
    security, and;
  8. Sponsor further research on relevant topics.

The private sector is encouraged to:

  1. Engage more closely with community organizations on digital risk identification and mitigation;
  2. Build better security into humanitarian technology offerings;
  3. Consider extending digital security initiatives to include a refugee focus, and;
  4. Amplify humanitarian efforts to shape the digital policy environment.

The report also includes recommendations for future research in this space, building on a number of key insights from the research.

A lightly edited synopsis of Connecting With Confidence: Managing Digital Risks to Refugee Connectivity by Dr. Aaron Martinfor the UNHCR Innovation Service

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