Beyond Convenience: For Refugees, Internet Access Can Be as Important as Food

We often conceptualize Internet access as a convenience, but not as something that's crucial to survival.

In fact, millennials, who more openly depend on the Internet than other generations, are frequently ridiculed for being beholden to their cell phones. Indeed, being "unplugged" isn't a matter of life or death, and can even be something of a luxury every now and then.

For refugees in war-torn areas, however, this isn't the case. From the perspective of refugees, Internet access is crucial for refugees to stay informed and in contact with their families. In fact, a recent UN study shows that Tanzanian refugees were often willing to give up 10 days' worth of food in order to buy a month of cell phone data.

Typically, refugee camps focus on providing "the essentials" -- food, water, shelter, healthcare. But more and more, the Internet is becoming essential to survival, and establishing reliable connectivity in refugee camps is more important than ever.

Connecting with loved ones

We're currently in the throes of the worst refugee crisis since WWII. Worldwide, over 65 million people have been forcibly removed from their homes, often times losing contact with family members and loved ones in the process.

That's why Internet access is so crucial for refugees who find themselves separated from their families in makeshift camps, such as the ones in Greece that house primarily Syrian refugees.

In these camps, the Internet is much more than a tool to scroll through your Instagram feed when you're bored: it comes a lifeline to talk to loved ones, finding out where they are, and letting them know that you're okay.

Providing life-saving resources

Even apart from its social aspect, the Internet provides a wealth of information on resources that can prove life-saving for refugees.

In the aforementioned UN report, for instance, it was discovered that many refugees use the Internet to supplement or even entirely substitute healthcare. A refugee in Kenya, for instance, citing poor access to first aid, notes that the Internet can provide basic healthcare information when trained professionals aren't readily available.

Another refugee in Tanzania remarked that the Internet can help people facilitate communication within refugee camps. His ability to connect to the Internet led him to learn of a cholera outbreak in the camp where he was staying. Being connected online allowed this information to travel much more quickly than by word-of-mouth.

The growing importance of the Internet in the eyes of refugees is part of the reason why more and more relief efforts have been focusing on equipping refugee camps with reliable, high-quality Internet access (in addition to "the essentials"). Nonprofit organization Disaster Tech Labs, for instance, is dedicated solely to rapidly establishing wifi in disaster zones across the world.

And private companies are getting involved, too. Cambium Networks, for instance, recently announced that they are joining forces with Disaster Tech Labs in order to bolster broadband networks at refugee camps in Greece.

"Refugees need to be able to communicate with loved ones, to access their financial resources, to engage with society," says Atul Bhatnagar, President and CEO of Cambium Networks. "Access to the Internet is critical for those impacted to be able to rebuild their lives."

As we can see, when it comes to the wellbeing of refugees, the Internet is a lot more than a convenience. As relief efforts focus more intently on establishing high-quality Internet access in refugee camps, people displaced due to conflict will be able to connect with loved ones, communicate with each other, and receive potentially life-saving information -- which, ultimately, can provide them with a semblance of normalcy, and assist them in putting their lives back together.