Should mobile phone access be considered a basic need?

With the structure and basic content of my research project very clear in my mind, it’s time to do the lit review! I must admit I was a little overwhelmed at first as to how to keep track of all my research and keep my direction clear, hence the delay on this post…

Nevertheless! I decided to make a Google doc of the aggregated resources I’ve found so far and conduct my literature review. Turns out there is a lot of information on every topic and naturally I want to share it all, so my biggest challenge will be determining what is most vital to include in the video series. If I find I can’t fit everything I want to share in the videos, I may also post corresponding blog posts with more information for those interested.

Lit review in progress…

One of the (many) questions that has arisen from my research is should mobile phone access be considered a basic need? One case study from Za’atari refugee camp on the Jordan/Syria border looked at the camp dynamics and the important role access to networks, SIMs and data plays for refugees. While UNHCR (the main group running the camp along with the Jordanian Government) hand out free SIM cards for all new residents, data and call minutes are not free. Access to networks is not considered a basic need and therefore cannot be covered by UNHCR. Contrary to UNHCR’s policy, this case study and other case studies I’ve researched have all indicated that access to a mobile phone/networks is of vital importance for refugees. Smartphones and network access essentially act as a lifeline to find accommodation, support networks, receive advice/warnings, avoid police and dangerous traffickers, provide a GPS location/contact the coast guard for those who travel by water – the list goes on.

Through my research I’ve also noted that technology use and access amongst refugees can have significant differences, caused by factors such as “socio-economic status, level of education, urban/rural residence and age”. These differences result in what has been termed the digital divide, which involves inequality not only in terms of access, but also through one’s ability to effectively utilise their access. What’s interesting is that training courses have been implemented in various refugee camps and urban resettlements (such as Za’atari, Niamey, Niger and New Zealand) as a way to close this divide. This not only highlights the importance of access but also the recognition by non refugees as to the importance of access and being able to utilise it to receive/transfer money, have educational programs and communicate with support networks.

On the flipside, use of new technologies on refugees raises even more questions. A 2015 study paper looked at the use and development of new technologies in humanitarian settings (including drone surveillance, biometrics used for managing refugees, SMS, GPS and other info/communication technologies) and found there is a history of ‘experimental’ use of these technologies, which is also linked to biopolitics. Biometrics through iris recognition technology as a way to receive money is one such example of these experimental technologies being utilised on refugees: IrisGuard are a leading force in this technology, registering over 1.6 million refugees as of June 2015. In a press release statement, they stated this technology allows refugees to “walk up to an IrisGuard enabled ATM on the street, present one eye only (no card or pin) and effortlessly withdraw their cash allocated financial subsidy immediately.” While there are certainly benefits to using these new technologies, I have to wonder what the risks are around identity theft and human rights. Afterall, online payments/data are attached to your identity and therefore controlled. And as refugees cannot officially be declared as refugees (with UNHCR) until they are registered through biometrics, is there really a choice in all this?  


AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE. 2015. Europe-bound Syrians use social media to ease journey, Arab News, available at:

Creti P. 2014. Study on Mobile Cash Transfers for Urban Refugees in Niamey, Niger, Cash Learning, available at:

Crump B.R. & Kabbar E.F. 2006. The Factors that Influence Adoption of ICTs by Recent Refugee Immigrants to New Zealand, Informing Science Journal, available at:

Dekker R & Engbersen G. 2012. How social media transform migrant networks and facilitate migration, International Migration Institute, available at:

Favell A. 2015. Using biometric technology to register refugees, Computer Weekly, available at:

IrisGuard press release as mentioned in above reference: O’Carroll J. 2015. IrisGuard – EyeBank® Cash Payment – Serving Syrian Refugees Daily, Press Release newswire, available at:

Jacobsen K. 2015. Experimentation in humanitarian locations: UNHCR and biometric registration of Afghan refugees, SAGE Journals, available at:

Maitland C & Xu, Ying A. 2015 Social Informatics Analysis of Refugee Mobile Phone Use: A Case Study of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp (March 31, 2015). TPRC 43: The 43rd Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy Paper. Available at SSRN:

McLaughlin D. 2015. Mass migration guided by mobiles and social media, The Irish Times (reported from Budapest), available at:

Williams A. 2015. Stop shaming Syrian refugees for using cellphones, The Daily Dot, available at:

About intersectionalalien

Hi hello people of earth/space/cyberspace, intersectional alien here. I’m still trying to figure out my place on this earth. I like intersectional feminism, feminism in popular culture, LGBTQ+, refugee rights, veganism, mental health, nihilism, travelling, unlearning institutional conditioning, good tunes and consuming and creating stories.
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4 Responses to Should mobile phone access be considered a basic need?

  1. Okay, so I know what I’m about to say really cannot be compared with the experience of a refugee, and that is certainly not my intention, however, here we go. This post made me think of how much I rely on my iPhone when I travel. I’m aware I’m a privileged white girl, who chooses to travel and put herself out of her comfort zone VOLUNTARILY, but nevertheless I feel I can somewhat connect with the refugee struggle with mobile access. If my phone battery runs out, or I’m in an area with no service or for some reason I can’t get temporary access to a SIM with a data plan while I’m overseas, I get so damn nervous. I use it for finding my way around, making sure a taxi is taking us to the right place, finding places to stay, to eat, to check my bank account and manage my travel funds, to get advice on the region I’m in from strangers on the internet, and sometimes just to call my parents and cry a little because I miss them and my bed. I cannot imagine the struggle of ensuring that you have mobile access while you’re a refugee. Being displaced from home involuntarily can be one of the most traumatic experiences, let alone doing it without the benefits of being connected like the rest of the world is. I think it’s great you’re including a lot of information on this for your final project, keep at it.

  2. Paul Tuohy says:

    I’d love to imagine that this discussion around refugee usage of phones could encourage policy makers to redefine our basic rights around technology. Examining the relationship between technology and refugees reveals the basic needs they require to not only survive, but to prosper. In regards to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, technology facilitates the access to 1. Biological and Physiological needs, 2. Safety needs, and 3. Love and belongingness needs. In fact, you could argue technology, in particular the phone, enables any need proposed in regards to Marlow’s Heirarchy of Needs. This is precisely what Theodore Rivers (in “Technology’s role in the confusion of needs and wants”) examines, as he puts it “technology facilitates the transformation of wants into needs, and therefore seems to elevate desires into necessities.” Arguments that criticise the “authenticity” of a refugee due to phone usage, reflect the cynicism that is still held against a human’s reliance on technology. BBC (in 2012) did a report on India that revealed more people had phones than private toilets. ( It’s not a great example of human needs in regards to technology dependence (it reflects more so the lack of access to plumbing), but it does highlight that access to phones is greater than what is commonly considered ubiquitous. In Amit Walia’s blog post, he presents that our relationship with 3 icons: low signal, loading bar, and low battery; cause strong emotional responses, and I can only imagine that the feeling would be amplified as a refugee.

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