Digital Developments Harbingers of Humanitarian Change?

Carleen Maitland

World Refugee Council Research Paper Series, World Refugee Council Research Paper No. 15, June 2019


Information and communication technologies have arguably improved refugees’ lives, and by some measures, improved humanitarian assistance (e.g. aid delivered via mobile money), yet they can potentially cause harm. This paper discusses three interrelated digital developments with the potential to profoundly change the notion of refugee protection:

  • The emergence of a ‘digital refugee’, i.e. the digital representation of a bona fide refugee constructed by humanitarian organizations (using demographic, biometric, and psychometric data) and by refugees themselves (using photos, videos, texts).
  • A reconfiguration of aid toward ‘digital humanitarian brokerage’, i.e. the use of digital platforms by humanitarian organizations to broker the provision of goods and services (housing, food, education) to refugees by other actors. The digital humanitarian brokerage trend is most clear in the move to digital cash programming.
  • Refugees’ growing use of digital technologies to enable self-sufficiency, e.g. remote digital work, or the use of refugee community data to support community problem solving.

Efficiency and transparency advantages of digital tools in humanitarian programs obscure attention to their disadvantages and potential harms: data stored on refugees’ phones can make them targets for interrogation and torture; easy access to disinformation can increase refugees’ vulnerability to fraud; devices can become infected with viruses and spyware, compromising sensitive information or impinging upon privacy; and humanitarian agencies’ use of complex information systems can create other vulnerabilities (in particular privacy concerns relating to biometric data, disclosure of information on sexual and gender-based violence etc.). The author recommends three responses to help amplify benefits and minimize harms from these new technologies: (a) comprehensive digital protection policies safeguarding all refugee data and digital assets (phones, computers, access), including the data they generate themselves; (b) independent analyses of digital humanitarian brokerage and digital self-sufficiency; and (c) involvement of refugees in making and evaluating policies and programming on the applications of ICT.