Carleen Maitland
Ying Xu
Publication Date
March 31, 2015

College of Information Sciences and Technology, Pennsylvania State University

"What level of mobile phone ownership and use is typical among refugee camp youth? How has their use changed (if at all) between the pre-conflict and refugee lives? What types of internet-based services might interest refugee youth and what are service providers likely to make available?"

Based on field research conducted in the Za'atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, this paper analyses data gathered through interviews, observation, and survey research to shed light on the social, technical, and demographic factors shaping refugee mobile phone use. Among the world's 59.5 million displaced persons, 19.5 million are legally "refugees", residing in a different country. For these refugees, mobile phones provide an invaluable link to scattered family and friends through messaging and social media. Some also use mapping technologies and geographic information systems like Google Maps on their phone to coordinate moving routes while fleeing. Despite the accessibility challenges in camps, refugees' embrace of information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly mobile phones, suggests they may be an important medium through which international organisations can provide improved support.

Social Informatics views ICT use as an outcome of complex and interconnected social and technical systems. In this analysis, the social systems include the camp-based organisational and social milieu of the refugees' lives, including refugee service providers, the host country government, and mobile network carriers. (In camps, refugees live in close proximity to humanitarian organisations responsible for their care, which implies the use context may be shaped by these relations.) The technical systems include the wireless and cellular networks and their properties as well as the availability of subscriber identification module (SIM) cards, mobile phones, laptops, and desktop equipment. With this background, the research then provides quantitative evidence of camp-based mobile phone access, particularly mobile handsets and SIM cards.

Established in July 2012 by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), together with the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), Za'atari is one of the largest camps in the world. Services in the camp, everything from water and food to health care, are provided by UNHCR and the Jordanian government together with a network of 26 international humanitarian service providers. The technical system in the camp consists of the infrastructure supporting the humanitarian organisations, the cellular networks provided by commercial carriers, and associated equipment. This report describes the camp's technical system in detail, noting the ways in which issues such as the camp terrain and the geographic distribution of land use affect issues such as coverage and network quality. In addition to the technical system, camp-based ICT use is also affected by social systems that enable and support use. For example, refugees' ability to pay for handsets, SIM cards, and minutes is a function of the camp's general economy. The prevalence of mobile phones has led UNHCR, upon refugee registration, to distribute SIM cards to newly arriving refugees as a potential means of staying connected and providing updated information. However, the SIM cards do not provide call minutes, so their use is fairly limited. Various implementing agencies offer training throughout the camp, including an IT training centre.

Data collection was conducted in two phases. The first visit by the team leader was conducted in February 2014; the second visit, with the entire team, was conducted in January 2015. In total, the researchers ended up with 234 completed surveys, with 192 (82%) collected from the IT training centres (where subjects were likely more educated). The ages range from 15 to 45, with the average age being 23. The gender balance is fairly even, with 6 more females than males. The sample is fairly well-educated, with nearly 43% having either started or completed a university degree.

Results show that 89% in the sample own a mobile handset, and 85% own at least one SIM card. These results are unsurprising, given the relatively high mobile phone penetration rates in the Middle East. Younger females are less likely to own a handset, yet a lack of handset ownership does not necessarily imply a lack of access. Respondents indicated 33.3% owned more than one SIM card, with the majority owning just one, and 65.2% reporting borrowing one SIM, while 34.2% borrowed more than one with a maximum of 5. For both youth and adults, more than 60% reported accessing the internet via their mobile phone only.

To understand the relationships between the demographic variables and access behaviours, the researchers used generalised linear model (GLM) regression models. People who have higher education (especially the group who has some experience with university and secondary/vocational school) and who are generally older tend to own a handset. Gender and English abilities do not have much effect on mobile phone ownership. Women are most likely to own more than one SIM card, with other demographic variables being insignificant. There is a positive relationship with women and the number of SIM cards borrowed. "Among the variety of access strategies, one of the more interesting is multiple SIM card ownership and sharing. In many contexts, SIM cards are highly associated with individual use. SIM cards store a unique identity number (phone number), security authentication, personal contacts and other information people typically hesitate to share or to which they want consistent access. However, in many developing countries, multiple SIM ownership and card sharing is not unfamiliar."

The researchers explain that "[t]he limited alternatives for network connections are shaped by the temporary nature of the camp, which is defined in part by the host country government. However, with unlimited resources, UNHCR might be able to overcome this constraint by purchasing rapidly deployable temporary network equipment which is sometimes used in disasters. However, to date, resource constraints and competing priorities are prohibitive....The limited choices for refugees and service providers alike create unprecedented demand for cellular data and unsurprisingly result in network congestion. Not all refugee camps with cellular network access face these constraints because oftentimes residents are simply too poor to afford cellular data or even to make voice phone calls. Hence, Za'atari's relatively positive economic environment contributes to network congestion. However, refugees are not so well off they adopt western usage behaviors of making a tariff choice at the time of SIM card purschase and accepting it by using just a single carrier. Hence, the relative lack of wealth of the refugees, together with network congestion, can be seen as the major drivers of multi-SIM behavior."

In addition to multi-SIM use, this research also sheds light on the circumstances of mobile-only internet access. Future research could explore the transition of former computer users to mobile use. There are a large number of children growing up in the camp who, unlike their parent(s), may not experience computer use and be true mobile-only users. The mixture of these two groups of users raises questions about their future helping behaviours and their own perceptions of differences in use patterns and behaviours. Also, service providers in the areas of education and other organisational activities could contemplate unique ICT use behaviours by refugees in designing their interventions.

The researchers suggest that "even a camp-based wide area network (WAN) for the service providers could potentially help reduce the congestion on the cellular network. An opportunity may exist to work with mobile service providers to improve network performance. However, the realities of investing for what may be temporary demand must be taken into account. This is clearly a use case for flexible and reusable network equipment. In the meantime, real broadband access for refugees will require either a significant influx of funding or more creative network solutions."


Social Science Research Network, June 9 2016. Image credit: Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis