10 December 2020

In late February 2020, I traveled to the world's largest refugee camp, Kutupalong, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 Rohingya are living after fleeing extreme violence in Myanmar in August 2017. I wanted to see what progress had been made—how generous donations pledged through my organization, USA for UNHCR, were being put to good use by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—as well as identify what difficulties and challenges remained. The COVID-19 virus was spreading in Asia and had started to surge in Iran and Italy. Even at that early stage, it was clear that a global health crisis was upon us.

After four days of meeting with UNHCR staff and refugees who were leading protection, education and health-care efforts in the camp, I marveled at the stability they had created together. While resources are scarce and living conditions sparse, I witnessed a sense of normalcy and community. I saw well-equipped health-care facilities and health education training for refugees, stronger shelters, and opportunities to work and take on community leadership positions. Rohingya children were engaged and thriving in learning centres.

One month later, in isolation at home with my family in the United States, I agonized over how quickly that progress could be erased.

As precautionary health measures were implemented around the world to reduce and prevent the spread of COVID-19, humanitarian teams and programmes were also scaled back in camp settings. In Kutupalong, anything beyond the most essential services was put on hold. On top of that, the camp was without Internet access, a decision taken by the Government of Bangladesh in 2019. This meant that Rohingya refugees living there were cut off from real-time information about the virus in Bangladesh and globally, as well as from their friends and family members elsewhere in the world.

For most of us in the United States, a world without the Internet is unimaginable. We use it all day, every day, in our places of work, wading through countless emails and online research, and at home, for navigating household responsibilities and for entertainment. But even in this country of wealth and cutting-edge technology, the home of Silicon Valley and birthplace of the tech giants, 15 per cent of Americans are without broadband Internet access.

Anne-Marie Grey, Executive Director and CEO of USA for UNHCR, meets with young Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. ©USA for UNHCR/Nicholas Feeney

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that connectivity is absolutely necessary—for communities in the United States and around the world. And it has tragically laid bare two vastly different realities for those who are connected and those who are not.

For those who have access, connectivity is considered a tool for surviving the pandemic. On the most basic level, it has ensured that people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms know when and how to self-isolate and reduce risks of exposure to family, health workers and caregivers. And for the connected, some of the essentials of everyday life continue—children are learning through virtual classrooms, those fortunate enough to work from home have retained their livelihoods, and we stay in touch with friends and family through video calls.

Those who are not connected are living in a very different world, even more so during the pandemic, and these disparities are among the starkest in refugee communities. Remote protection and education, as well as livelihood and psychosocial support services, are not possible without access to mobile data. Lack of connectivity further isolates refugees from their family members, whom they may have had to leave behind in conflict and other difficult circumstances. Refugee communities are constrained from organizing and empowering themselves, cutting off the path to self-reliance. Without connectivity, we also constrain transformative innovation in humanitarian assistance at a time when such a transformation has never been more necessary.

This year’s Human Rights Day theme focuses on the need and opportunity to build back better in the wake of the pandemic by ensuring that human rights are central to recovery efforts. And make no mistake about it, digital connectivity should be a human right. It enables access to information, education and opportunity. For refugees, digital connectivity is often a lifeline to basic services such as cash transfers, applying for a job and accessing online counselling or health care. Without safe and affordable access to the Internet for every person, we will never achieve equity in any of these areas, which is why the United Nations Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation calls for universal connectivity by 2030. 

UNHCR, in partnership with Microsoft, has implemented an initiative to provide digital skills to refugees like Grace and members of the host community in Kakuma, Kenya. ©UNHCR/Hannah Maule-Ffinch

On 28 August of this year, the Government of Bangladesh restored Internet connectivity to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar—a critical step forward that allowed humanitarian agencies the opportunity to broadly disseminate crucial information about COVID-19, and created a pathway for children to realize the benefit of distanced education programming, addressing their educational needs for the long term.

As countries around the world grapple with the pandemic and take steps to design and deliver remote care, learning and livelihood solutions, no one should be left behind. Reliable mobile and Internet connectivity is critical to ensuring that all people are able to access the economic and social benefits of the digital revolution. By bringing to bear this new human right, citizens of this world can be agents in their own progress, with dignity and self-reliance. Ensuring access to affordable and usable Internet connectivity is both achievable and transformative, and the private sector and partners at the national, regional and local levels who share this bold and ambitious vision to ensure access for all can play a powerful role in making it happen.

To recover from this global health crisis, and to build back better for the future, we must do more to promote and protect economic, social, cultural and human rights. We all have the right, regardless of our country or community, to be part of a connected society, and have access to technology that enables us to build better futures for ourselves, our families and the world.


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