Human Rights and Refugee Access to Information

Janet de Merode

Janet de Merode

Janet de Merode
Fielding Graduate University

A political debate ignited in the United States recently over the issue of access to cell phones by refugees.   Access to a phone, it was argued, indicates financial means that are at odds with refugee status.  In response, digital rights activists argued that access to information, and thus the cell phone enabling it, is a basic human right.  Indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), developed as a foundational global agreement after WWII, states in Article 19 that “(E)veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” ( Therefore, access to information has standing alongside the rights to food, health, education, and shelter as universal and inalienable.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimated that by the middle of 2015, the number of persons in the world displaced by conflicts and persecution had surpassed 60 million.  This means that one out of every 122 people in the world has been forced to leave home. The UNHCR labels the dramatic increases in the numbers of forcibly displaced refugees, asylum seekers and people fleeing within their own country as producing “a staggering new high.”  Media and technology psychologists with a global perspective are uniquely placed to contribute to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.  The following indicates just some of the needs and innovative responses underway and how we can help.

Access to information and health and education services are critical for refugees.  In the European Community, the MASELTOV project (Mobile Assistance for Social Inclusion & Empowerment of Immigrants with Persuasive Learning Technologies & Social Network Services) uses three stages in focusing the needs for urban immigrants who represent 60% of the world’s 20 million refugee population:  pre-departure, settling in, and establishing social networks.  The project uses a combination of augmented reality, serious games for job seeking preparation, language learning, and other features for information and well-being, all for free download on smartphones.

Globally, children are half of the population on the move or displaced.  Many running from crisis are under- or malnourished and are at life risk from dehydration, diarrheal or respiratory disease, and other communicable epidemics common in crowded refugee camps, such as measles.  In an effort to track and provide vaccinations and healthcare to displaced children in Thailand, health care workers use both audio and visual image records with stateless, tribal individuals whose languages are unwritten and who do not speak Thai (Kaewkungwal et al., 2015).  This project, developed in response to the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Round 7, asked innovators to produce a way to use cell phone technology to improve healthcare for this highly mobile population and others similar to it.  Medical records that can be transmitted by media technology have great advantages over written records for following displaced populations movements and epidemiological data.

Refugees suffer stress from information precarity, the lack of knowledge of moving about safely in an unknown environment (Wall, Campbell & Janbek, 2015; Harney, 2013).  Refugees on the move use cell phones for GPS routing and such safety information as the location of landmines or places of known attacks against women (“A Harrowing Journey into Europe Aided by Apps and Internet Access,” 2015; Wall, Campbell, & Janbek, 2015).  In camps, aid workers and refugees can communicate with each other by SMS for information about resources, health and safety alerts, educational opportunities and jobs (  In South Africa, SMS has been piloted successfully to screen for depression among refugees (Tomita, Kandolo, Susser, & Burns, 2015)

Jordan, host to an estimated 1 million mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees (, also hosts some of the most pioneering methods combining media technology and humanitarian response.  Accurate tracking of the constantly changing population is done with biometric identification and SMS text messaging.  Iris scanning technology also activates aid payments to refugees at banks and payments by them for goods at stores (Favell, 2015).

These examples demonstrate that refugees can receive more timely, effective, and cost-efficient aid services with mobile technology. Perhaps most importantly, the technology enables two-way conversations between displaced persons and their social support networks.

In the global humanitarian aid community, a culture of encouraged innovation is emerging quickly for applications of media technology to serve mobile populations.  Organizations post challenges or describe roadblocks they are facing in providing the right services at the right time, and anyone can respond with an idea that might be funded by donors.  Examples include the crowdsourcing UNHCR Ideas Project, specific challenges funded in partnership with the Ikea Foundation, and Global Grand Challenges issued by USAID, the Canadian government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Each of these calls for innovation reflects a belief that science and technology will provide breakthrough solutions to the most urgent global problems.

Alongside innovation, timely research is needed to determine effectiveness and scalability.  Media psychologists with a global perspective, trained in community action research and able to navigate diverse cultural settings can:

  1. Adhere to the UDHR and Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles for Psychologists.
  2. Research and create media use through the lens of these two aspirational documents, and use media to enhance participatory research methodologies that are action-oriented.
  3. Promote cross-fertilizing ideas by speaking and disseminating work at international conferences.
  4. Clarify the role of culture and SES in the use and impact of media on behavior and well-being of displaced persons during different phases of the migrant experience.
  5. Facilitate innovation by answering calls for ideas and prototypes using media technology.
  6. Teach about digital divides, along economic and technology divisions and along cultural and class lines.

By participating in the innovations by refugees and the humanitarians who serve them, media psychologists may some day provide the model for a biopsychosocialtechno response to individual and community well-being, serving both mobile and rooted populations.


Kaewkungwal, J., Apidechkul, T., Jandee, K., Khamsiriwatchara, A., Lawpoolsri, S., & Sawang, S. (2015). Application of Mobile Technology for Improving Expanded Program on Immunization Among Highland Minority and Stateless Populations in Northern Thailand Border. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 3(1), e4. Retrieved from

Tomita, A., Kandolo, K. M., Susser, E., & Burns, J. K. (2015). Use of short messaging services to assess depressive symptoms among refugees in South Africa: Implications for social services providing mental health care in resource-poor settings. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare.

Wall, M., Campbell, M. O., & Janbek, D. (2015). Syrian Refugees and information Precarity. New Media & Society, 1–15.

(Editor’s Note. Janet de Merode was a recipient of the 2015 Early Career Applied Research Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology.)

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