Promoting Digital Inclusion for Refugees Amid the Covid-19 Crisis in Egypt

By Mohamed Farahat |

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has dramatically transformed our daily lives, making the virtual world the new reality for many people. However, for many others, including refugees, it has further served to deepen their digital exclusion.

Since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Egypt in February 2020, the number of confirmed cases, including deaths, has been increasing. By April 08, 2021, there have been 207,293 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 12,290 deaths, reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the Egyptian government took several preventive measures, including ordering a partial lockdown, suspending all public events, imposition of restrictions on movements, and closing of schools and universities.

The pandemic has demonstrated that ensuring access to the internet has never been more vital than it is today. Governments have increasingly been challenged to meet their obligation to bridge the digital divide for vulnerable groups, especially those that lack internet access.

Refugees are often amongst the most vulnerable groups in the host countries and the pandemic has served to further exacerbate their vulnerability. Egypt hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers from 57 countries. As of December 31, 2020, the country had registered at least 259,292 refugees and asylum-seekers. The pandemic rendered many refugees jobless, with no income to cover internet costs and thereby keeping them out of connectivity. As a result, there is an increased need for the state to address gaps in digital access, affordability and ultimately access to information during this time of crisis.

Refugees and Access to ICT

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are 50% less likely to own internet-enabled phones than the rest of the population. The situation is more dire in rural areas, where 20% of refugees do not have a permanent means of communication. In urban areas, where the internet is available, many refugees cannot afford to access the internet due to the lack of income and thus, like other vulnerable sections of society, refugees continue to lag behind in a quickly digitalising world.

Recognising the internet connectivity challenges faced by refugees, the UNHCR launched a global initiative – Connectivity for Refugees  – with the purpose of ensuring that all refugees, and the communities that host them, have access to available, affordable and usable mobile and internet connectivity in order to leverage these technologies for protection, communications, education, health, self-reliance, and community empowerment.

Vitality of Internet Access

According to the UNHCR-Egypt country office, the majority of refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt were already highly vulnerable prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 and have been directly impacted by the evolving circumstances. Many have lost their sources of income and cannot afford to buy sufficient basic supplies or pay their rent.

While access to the internet has been essential for refugees to work, learn, access information, and express their opinions, its usage has decreased dramatically due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions have been imposed on several daily spheres such as freedom of movement, work and education.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced most organisations and refugee service providers, including the UNHCR Egypt office, to close offices in preference for remote working. Further, the UNHCR came to rely on online communications such as via zoom including in conducting  interviews with refugees. During this period, the handling of refugees’ applications and the conduct of awareness raising sessions  were held through online video and audio-conferencing platforms. In spite of this adaptation, most of this work was stalled by connectivity and accessibility challenges faced by the refugees.

The Right to Education

With the pandemic effects of quarantines and lock downs, virtual life became inevitable for common activities including education. Many education institutions have embraced distance learning which is majorly reliant on internet access and connectivity. The  UNHCR –Egypt Fact sheet for July 2020 notes that more than half of all refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR are children and youths of school age.

However, the digital approach raises questions as to whether refugee students can afford and are accessing the education delivered via digital platforms. As the UNHCR has noted, most of the refugee and host communities have limited access to hardware devices, and connectivity is thus prohibitively expensive. Additionally, lack of access also limits acquisition/development of the digital literacy and skills required by teachers, students, and their communities to make the most of the available learning resources.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has proposed some solutions, including the use and prioritisation of digital and broadcast remote learning policies to universally address the needs of all households and to accommodate situations where children do not have the necessary technological assets at home, through deliberate policies that facilitate infrastructure development in technology for displaced persons and children in remote and rural areas and those displaced by emergencies.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The high costs of computers and smartphones and of accessing the internet have left most refugees without connectivity. Similarly, enabling tools like SIM cards are usually hard to access for refugees without official documents.

Refugees have a right to access the internet and to enjoy all digital rights and freedoms. Accordingly, there should be the necessary infrastructure to enable access to services and information. However, the impediments that came because of Covid-19 have fundamentally affected online activities including learning for refugees.

The Egyptian government is therefore urged to take all measures that aim to ensure accessible and affordable internet to all individuals including refugees whose health and education continue to be greatly threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Specifically, the government and responsible agencies such as the UNHCR should double their efforts to ensure that refugee communities have access to SIM cards to facilitate easy internet access by easing on the stringent requirements to register for SIM cards. In this regard, the government should allow refugees to use their UNHCR-issued identity cards to register for telephone and internet services.

Additionally, it is critical that measures are taken to ensure that refugee students do not miss out on education by providing the necessary digital technologies to enable them attend school and sit for their examinations.

Mohamed Farahat is a 2020 CIPESA Fellow. He is an Egyptian human rights lawyer, specialising in refugees and migration. As part of the fellowship, he is documenting inclusion of refugees in the technology-based responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in Egypt; and the role of the judiciary in the internet freedom landscape in North Africa.

Vodacom Outshines MTN in Efforts to Serve Persons With Disabilities in South Africa

By CIPESA Writer |

South Africa has a national disability prevalence rate of about 7.5%, which represents approximately 2.87 million persons with disability. According to the Marginalised Groups Indicator Report of 2018, the bulk of this population resides in Gauteng province and the least in the Northern Cape, with the most affected age groups being 5-14 and 15-24 years. Women have a higher chance of being disabled than men and are more likely to receive less schooling. 

While households of persons with disabilities have a 90% likelihood of having access to electricity, their access to technological devices is far lower, in major part due to failure by telecom operators to provide accessible services and devices to this often marginalised population.

See this report: Access Denied: How Telecom Operators in Africa are Failing Persons With Disabilities 

The telecommunication industry plays a critical role in providing information and communication services to the public. However, many telecom operators are failing to provide accessible information and services to large sections of persons with disabilities.

A study conducted among 10 telecom companies in five African countries sought to understand this digital access and service gap within the telecom industry in promoting digital accessibility for persons with disabilities, in particular visual and auditory disabilities. In South Africa, the main market share holders, MTN (28%) and Vodacom (42%), were the focus of the study. The study found that both operators offered affordable accessible handsets, but such handsets were not available in all outlets. 

This inconsistent product availability was accompanied by limited staff knowledge of any special offerings for persons with disabilities (such as call, SMS, data or discounted rates) and low skills in serving members of this community. Moreover, neither Vodacom nor MTN availed information about their services in Braille. 

However, Vodacom had an upper hand over MTN in creating awareness about accessibility products and services (including through alliances with the South African Audiology Association and South African Speech, Language and Hearing Association) and in developing accessibility applications.  

Vodacom also supported the development of HearZA app, a smartphone-based national hearing test app, developed in partnership with the University of Pretoria to help with early detection of hearing problems. In addition, in April 2018 Vodacom launched the free (082 112) SMS Emergency Service for hearing and speech impaired customers, which enabled registered customers to request emergency services such as police, ambulance, fire, and sea rescue by sending an SMS to the Emergency Service Contact Centre. The research shows that MTN had no tailor-made applications for persons with disabilities.

Earlier in 2016, Vodacom partnered with the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB) to provide an easier and more accessible avenue to bring mobile communication closer to the visually impaired by installing a mobile service kiosk at SANCB’s premises in Pretoria. The aim of this partnership was to provide training and to empower the SANCB staff on how to use accessible smartphones and to train their members.

Further, Vodacom has been offering Apple and Android smart devices that come with built-in text-to-speech applications (Apple – VoiceOver and Android – TalkBack) that convert text to audio, allowing visually impaired customers to listen to information such as SMS. In-store activation, an assisted step-by-step guide, and training on using the accessibility features, are additional services the company could offer. 

Integrating the needs of persons with disabilities at company policy level is also indicative of its commitment to inclusion. According to the research, Vodacom had a guiding procurement policy as part of the group’s inclusion strategy to promote accessibility, while MTN had a wide business-focused procurement policy with no specific information on devices for persons with disabilities.

Across the 10 telecom companies assessed, only Vodacom had discounted rates for persons with disabilities, and for hearing-impaired customers, special contract phone deals that consisted of data and SMS were provided. Vodacom was also the only operator in the study that had emergency communications designed specifically for persons with disabilities. 

A Code of Conduct for Persons with Disabilities Regulations was issued by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in 2007 and a review was undertaken in  2019, with inputs and commitments of support to the review effort from operators Cell-C, MTN, and Vodacom. Proposals received during the review included to revise the code of conduct to include subtitling for all TV programmes; large print and braille billing statements to be issued by operators; a need for universal design of handsets at affordable prices; cheaper hearing aids to be made available; airtime vouchers to be printed in braille; and Jaws (a screen reading software) to be installed in smartphones.

For persons with disabilities to realise technology’s transformative potential, their rights must be provided for in national laws and policies, and countries must take deliberate steps to ensure that they have unfettered access to quality information and ICT, and are protected from all forms of discrimination. South Africa’s telecom operators need to follow Vodacom’s examples to proactively support the needs of persons with disabilities, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledge to leave no one behind

See more about how South Africa’s telecom operators compare to those in other countries in the provision of services and devices to persons with disabilities.