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Human Rights Meet Humanitarian Practice: Delivering Internet as Aid

This piece was written by John Traylor, Monitoring and Evaluation and Connectivity Officer, Mercy Corps

Food, water, shelter – these are the basic needs many people imagine when they think of humanitarian assistance. But when thousands of migrants and refugees started landing on Greek islands in 2015, some of them would seek out an internet connection over other necessities, and for many of them their phone was their most valuable object. Since then, in an increasingly digital world, the internet has proven essential, especially for those in crisis. Humanitarians must consider access to the internet as a human right in order to meet the most urgent needs.

In partnership with the Signal Program at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Mercy Corps set out to better understand how WiFi connectivity interventions impact migrant people in humanitarian contexts.  Moreover, the partnership developed guidance for practitioners to deliver connectivity as aid with a focus on human rights. The study, WiFi Use and Mental Health in a Refugee Camp in Italy, illustrated that access to free WiFi gives migrant users an increased sense of social support and self-efficacy, and lowered depressive symptoms.         

Internet access supports migrants in many ways. For Nsona, a resident in Italy’s Roya Camp, access to the internet is essential for transitioning to his new life in Europe after leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo. He uses the internet to learn Italian and look for work. Other migrants rely on the internet for information on how to seek asylum and obtain documentation.  For migrants on dangerous journeys, the internet enables them to update their loved ones around the globe about where they are and that they’re alive and well.      

While internet access is essential to keeping migrants and refugees connected to resources and their loved ones, it’s often unavailable due to financial and infrastructure barriers. Nsona could not rely on mobile phone coverage because Roya Camp was located in a deadzone. Likewise, Aggrey, a student living in Uganda’s Bidibi camp, had to decide between buying breakfast or spending his money on data bundles; either way, he couldn’t meet one of his essential needs.  

Humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps, research centers like the Signal Program, and private sector actors are working together to help Nsona, Aggrey, and others address these barriers and stay connected to the internet. Mercy Corps and HHI developed a white paper and field guide that outlines a human rights approach to connectivity and the minimum standards humanitarian actors should follow to design and deploy connectivity interventions. 

These documents place safety and accessibility at the forefront of connectivity interventions by rooting their approach in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 2016 resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. These guidelines facilitate the practitioner’s design and deployment of WiFi connectivity interventions for affected populations, supporting refugees and migrants to fulfill their rights to internet access through free hotspots in an equitable and safe manner.

Mercy Corps, in collaboration with other humanitarian agencies and private sector partners, has used this approach to enable Nsona, Aggrey, and nearly 200,000 refugees and other vulnerable people to connect to the internet, for free, through over 60 WiFi hotspots in six countries around the world. Not only do these hotspots enable vulnerable people to connect to information and their loved ones, but they also play a positive role in supporting the mental health of people on the move. Yet challenges remain that aren’t easily solved by aid approaches alone. 

Investment in country-level infrastructure would improve the availability of fast and reliable internet connections, especially in remote locations, and reduce the cost of data usage for individuals and humanitarians building free WiFi hotspots. Advocacy for internet freedom can ensure access to the internet is fair and uninhibited by government controls.   

In the 21st century, access to the internet is as essential as ever, particularly for the 281 million international migrants (in 2020) with changing needs. It’s time for the humanitarian sector to adapt traditional aid to meet new digital needs that can help people whose lives have been uprooted build a better future wherever they are.