Five Myths About Refugees and Technology

By Julie Yelle

At Harmoni, one of our primary aims is to change the way refugees are perceived worldwide. As we’ve spoken to more people, we’ve realized that there are many misconceptions about what life is like as a refugee. So we’ve decided to “debunk” the top five myths we’ve heard regarding refugees and technology.

Myth #1: Most refugees have no means to connect to the internet.


The vast majority of refugees across the globe, in cities and in rural areas, have access to wireless internet via mobile coverage. In urban areas, 90% of refugees have access to 3G mobile coverage and the remaining 10% have access to 2G coverage—percentages closely comparable to the global population’s—according to a 2016 UNHCR report. Even in rural areas, where 20% of refugees have no connectivity, a large majority of the refugee population does nevertheless have some form of mobile coverage.


Myth #2: Refugees do not use smartphones.


Thirty-nine percent of refugee households own an internet-capable phone, and an additional 32% own a basic phone. Device affordability represents the largest barrier to internet use at refugee sites, and refugees are 50% less likely to own a smartphone than the general global population. Yet refugees who do not personally own mobile devices are not necessarily off the mobile grid. It is common for refugees to share mobile devices with family members or, especially in refugee camps, with their neighbors. Access to mobile devices also varies widely from one refugee community to another. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, Penn State researchers found that 86% of youth own a mobile handset and over half access the internet on a daily basis.


Myth #3: Smartphones are a luxury for the elite, not a basic humanitarian need for refugees.


If you were to visit a refugee camp and ask the first refugee you met to show you his or her most important possession, that person would likely reveal to you personal documents, first aid supplies, a cherished momento—or a smartphone. If you would view that smartphone as a status symbol or a toy, think again.


A UNHCR and Accenture research study conducted in 44 countries found that many refugees consider mobile and internet access as critical to their safety and security as food, water, and shelter. Refugees in multiple countries make incredible sacrifices to maintain mobile access, often prioritizing connectivity over clothing and healthcare. In Tanzania, refugees have even sacrificed 10 days’ worth of food rations in exchange for money to buy cell phone data. The fact that refugees often spend up to a third of their disposable income on internet and mobile services reflects that staying connected is expensive, but it is also indispensable. For refugees, who rely on mobile and internet communication to access life-saving services and information, navigate unfamiliar physical terrain, communicate with loved ones about their location and safety, and feel connected to the rest of the world, technological connectivity is a lifeline, not a luxury.


Myth #4: All refugees have low levels of digital literacy.


Counter to public perception, refugees often come from professional, middle-class backgrounds and in fact, as a 2015 OECD report stressed, “tend to have higher skill levels than the general population in origin countries.” Many refugees are young men and women who went to university and have had experience working with computers. A 2017 OECD report suggests that Syrian and Iranian refugees in particular are often university-educated. Refugee hackathon participants have even designed innovative technological solutions to address humanitarian needs and won awards in the process.


Myth #5: Refugees use the internet for personal reasons, not educational or professional purposes.


The primary reason that refugees use the internet is to communicate with friends and family (UNHCR 2016), but it is certainly not the only reason. Thousands of refugees have enrolled in online courses via Coursera for Refugees, Kiron University, and other internet-based education providers. Teachers and students often use mobile phones as educational tools by participating in virtual discussion with their peers through online social networks on platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook. Mobile devices are also used as a livelihood tool to “find employment, run small businesses and work in ancillary services,” according to a 2017 GSMA report. Many refugees also see smartphones as “easy” and “useful” tools to learn English or other local languages, study for driver’s tests, prepare for university entry exams, and otherwise take critical steps to integrate into their host communities.

   “IMG_2067”  by  Abel Caine  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

“IMG_2067” by Abel Caine is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We at Harmoni recognize that many refugees have access to mobile infrastructure, basic digital literacy, and the skills and motivation to be connected with opportunities in the tech field. Based on this information, we’ve developed Harmoni App--a mobile app that gives refugees simple work they can do right from their smartphones. For more information, contact us at


Megan Majd