Galen Winey is a recent SAIS graduate who concentrated in International Development.

For nearly five million people displaced by the Syrian Civil War, connectivity constraints limit their ability to find basic services, make informed decisions, and connect with family members across borders. Refugees have very specific information needs, and have been willing to adapt their use of mobile services to utilize technologies available in new ways. This article will analyze the ways Syrian refugee communities leverage mobile, OTT services, especially social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp. It will examine factors affecting access to such services and information demands Syrian refugees often seek to fulfill through mobile internet and OTT services. Drawing on a variety of quantitative and qualitative reporting, this article will attempt to define some general trends and examine their implications.

Regional context

Network providers and OTT services
Mobile network operators (MNOs) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are beginning to go through their own transition of service types. The region already has some of the highest rates of both mobile phone and smartphone penetration: in some markets, as many at 75-85% of people have smartphones, and mobile penetration in many markets exceeds 100%, though as discussed below, these levels can vary substantially for refugee communities. (Kuruvilla et al. 2016, 12) Revenues are still climbing significantly, but in many markets, users have begun to place more emphasis on messaging and multimedia services based on data (e.g., 3G), rather than traditional phone calls and SMS. (ibid) These ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) services will disrupt the revenue streams of MNOs as data becomes the driver of growth. Service providers throughout the region have also been relatively active in responding to the crisis. The GSMA (an industry association) developed a set of principles for its Humanitarian Connectivity Charter in 2015. (GSMA 2017) Individual firms have also been active. Zain Group, a Middle East-region MNO, and Facebook are working to provide free wi-fi hotspots at refugee centers throughout Jordan, with the intention of providing valuable services to refugees. Operators have also established a set of tariffs in some regional markets designed for use by refugees, for instance Touch in Lebanon has established a pre-paid plan with SMS and call minutes to Syria on top of local minutes. (ibid., 35) In addition, among its many responsibilities in responding to the crisis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has put forward a partnership-driven Vision of Connectivity for Refugees, emphasizing the importance of refugee connectivity, both in their host country, and to their home in Syria. (UNHCR 2016, 8)

Ubiquity of social media
Current data on use of social media by refugee populations is inconsistent but qualitative, quantitative, and anecdotal evidence suggests that social media plays an important role in communication media in the MENA region generally, and among refugee populations specifically. For instance, among refugees living in Jordan’s Azraq camp, Facebook and WhatsApp were reported as the most frequently used sources of media by almost half the surveyed population; TV was the most frequently accessed media for only 14% of respondents. (REACH 2015, 5) Partly, this can reflect the particular circumstances in which refugees live. In Jordan, for instance, the same survey found that refugee’s choices reflected a limited set of options: electricity access was often difficult, so TV was a less viable option. In comparison to other media, “widespread access to social media drives its use as an information source more so than its credibility.” (ibid.)

Gap between information needs and access among refugees

Refugees face a distinct set of challenges in accessing information, through technology or otherwise, making it difficult to find basic services, make informed decisions, and stay in communication with families. (UNHCR 2016, 8) Affordability constraints are among the most important in accessing ICTs among Syrian refugees. A report in Iraq found that, among encamped households, 65% had no internet access, and that the most commonly cited reason for lacking access was lack of funds for mobile data credit. (REACH 2014, 2-5) Refugees may be in areas with decent network coverage, and may even have a high level of phone ownership, but lack of resources limits access to mobile services that can provide essential information. (UNHCR 2016, 13)

An additional report in Jordan illustrated the variability in access among the Syrian refugee community in different host countries. Mobile phone ownership among encamped refugee households was widespread, and 58% reported to be in possession of a smartphone. (REACH 2015, 4) Even among those without smartphones, 47% had access to one through a household member. However, the most trusted information source identified was television, despite its relative inaccessibility. Social media, the most accessible, was considered the least trusted by 26% of respondents, but the most trusted by 22% of respondents, reflecting diverse and complicated relationships with social media, even among refugees of a single camp. (ibid.)

Further, gender plays a role. Among Syrian refugees, unmarried young women are less likely to use a mobile phone for communication. (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 7) At the same time, a study in refugee camps in Iraq found that, on average, women were more likely than men to know how to access information on services in the camps, regardless of their levels of ICT use. (REACH 2014, 2)

In addition to information deficits, Syrian refugees face threats to their own security and their relative’s safety related to their use of ICT, especially mobile phones. The threat of surveillance is present through a difficult combination of real and perceived capabilities of the Syrian regime and host governments’ intelligence services. Refugees routinely express fears that information they provide electronically (including phone calls, messages, or on social media) may result in harm to their relatives still in Syria or their own removal from their current host country. (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 10)

Categorizing refugee OTT use patterns

As a method of coping with difficult circumstances, refugees use a strategy identified as technological appropriation: using mobile devices “in ways not necessarily envisioned by mobile service providers, who set up cell phone systems to operate within national borders.” (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 8) Refugees also develop new ways to leverage ICTs to solve special problems they face, often ahead of aid and relief organizations or host governments, and many of these approaches focus on mobile services and OTT services.

Information needs
In the Syrian conflict, much of what is known generally about the events of the conflict is provided through social media networks, including video, commentary, and analysis. (Lynch, Freelon, and Aday 2014) Though the Syrian crisis is broadly covered by the global news media, refugees are often interested in news specific to their home town or village, which, if any coverage exists, can often be incomplete or inaccurate. (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 8) Many in the refugee community turn to social media sources to acquire information more local to their homes, with social media usage far exceeding the rate at which refugees use information from traditional news outlets, camp services, or host country information providers. (REACH 2015, 24)

There is some awareness of the limitations of this kind of information. As noted, many refugees surveyed do find social media sources to be less trustworthy, and some even acknowledge that social media can be fertile ground for rumors and misinformation (ibid., 8-9). Though social media channels are often considered to be unfiltered flows of information, many channels are carefully curated by activists around a particular narrative. A report by the U.S. Institute of Peace (2014) found that, “key curation hubs within social media networks may now play a gatekeeping role as powerful as that once played by television and op-ed page editors.”

One mechanism refugees employ to cope with unreliable sources of information is to attempt to verify it themselves. This is often accomplished by means as simple as calling relatives or trusted sources in their home town (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 9). The key factor for many is the trusted individual source, rather than reports they see on broader feeds. Greater information access facilitated by social networks has made literacy broadly, and critical analysis skills more specifically, all the more important for refugee communities. (Jalbout and Farah 2016, 13)

Multiple SIM cards
A notable feature of mobile service consumption by Syrian refugees is the use of multiple SIM cards. Multiple factors lead to many refugees using multiple SIM cards, including unreliable mobile networks in the areas of refugee camps, the ease of purchasing or even renting SIM cards, and the spread of highly capable and affordable mobile handsets. Refugees are also known to use Syrian SIM cards in camps close to the border to access the Syrian mobile network (climbing a small hill is often necessary), or sending a Jordanian or Lebanese SIM card to relatives just across the border. (Wall, Campbell, and Janbek 2015, 6-7, 10) One result of this is that phone number lists collected by relief organizations are often out of date, or at least not immediately useful if a message’s intended recipient has temporarily switched to her other SIM card.

Refugees have very specific information needs that are difficult to fulfill without leveraging social media, however, this presents a distinct set of challenges. The expansion of the availability of OTT services throughout the region has and still is changing the relationship between individuals and information in the region. The humanitarian response community has increasingly recognized that it is significantly behind in the levels of ICT use currently in refugee communities, (Cheney 2017) but at the same time, it has the opportunity to find new approaches building on these advances, and to expand the information and communication capacities of refugees.


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PHOTO CREDIT: "Documentary: 'District Zero'" by Pablo Tosco / Oxfam Intermón / European Commission Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), licensed under Flickr Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0.