An initiative by Techfugees France

The ability to access vast amounts of information through a few clicks made on a small handheld device is easy to take for granted today. As tourists, most of us have experienced the unnerving feeling of being an “outsider” when travelling abroad and finding ourselves lost in translation in an unfamiliar city. The idea of having to wait for hours before obtaining the correct information at the tourist office, or that of relying on somebody else to tell you how to get from one place to another in detail, seems inefficient, inconvenient and to some extent even undignifying .

 

This “outsider” sentiment is a daily reality for a vast majority of displaced individuals. Accessing information, whether through social networks or digital channels, is often difficult for displaced communities for various reasons, ranging from data and device cost to lack of legal proof of identity (see figure below). Being able to access information which helps them navigate the complexities of the new community they are integrating  and make informed decisions in is essential in fostering self-reliance for displaced individuals. 

Source: UNHCR 2016
 

Despite being aware of the general issue at a global level, its urgency and scale in France became apparent to Techfugees France’s team during the COVID 19-related lockdown, which began in March 2020.

The lockdown measures resulted in the sweeping closure of public services, educational facilities and all non-essential commerce, as well as severely restricting individuals’ mobility. Access to free WiFi from libraries and restaurants brutally disappeared, leaving a significant proportion of the displaced persons in vulnerable situations (in temporary shelters or in the street for instance) not able to access the internet. For displaced individuals, the lockdown posed particular risks due to: 

  • The digitisation of a handful of administrative services such as registering with the relevant authorities and submitting claims for asylum. During our interviews, Utopia56 mentioned for instance watizat, an online information guide for exiled individuals in the streets of Paris about administrative processes and services available,
  • A move from in person to online classes for language (and other), for children, youth and adults, and

  • An increased risk of isolation from their social networks and communities  in light of social distancing measures, especially for those living outside urban centers. 

In order to address these immediate needs made apparent due to the lockdown, Techfugees France collaborated with Travel Wifi to lend portable wifi boxes to associations assisting displaced individuals. These associations then delivered the boxes to individuals and families most in need of access to the internet during this period. A total of 10 boxes were delivered via post and in person to 5 organizations (Accueil Goutte d’Or, Centre Primo Levi, Act For Ref, Utopia 56 & Kabubu) in the Paris region and Lyon. 

The processes of renting, receiving and returning the box via post were free of cost for the associations and the displaced individuals. 

The use cases are multifold. Whether it for stationary usage, in a flat, day-or-housing center like Accueil Goutte d’Or, or for mobile usage while on the move “maraude” operations in the streets of Paris by Utopia 56 teams, access to the internet and devices are greatly needed. The Techfugees France team has also been in touch with Refugee Info Bus, a structure providing internet and access to information and rights in Calais during one of the last Techfugees Live Sessions on forced displacements to the United Kingdom.   

Between June and December 2020, this project has reached 21 individuals and 12 families thanks to the support of 6 associations. The poster below provides an overview of the purposes for which the boxes were requested (June-December 2020)

 

 

 

Gathering feedback from the associations and displaced individuals they supported over the course of the lockdown allowed us to witness that the need for these wifi boxes went much beyond the lockdown period and extended to more than just access to the internet. An initial round of interviews conducted with 10 organizations (public, private and not for profit) serving displaced communities in France led us to understand that improving internet connectivity is merely a means to an end. The overarching goal is facilitating easy and affordable access to information which enables self-reliance, independence and dignity for displaced communities in France. 

Social Media post from Accueil Goutte d’Or

 

In 2021, we’ll be focusing our efforts on improving access to information for displaced individuals in France by:

  1. Scaling our current operations by reaching more displaced individuals and communities and providing them with access to the internet 

Following the success of our Wifi box lending program , we secured an additional 10 Meraki routers  from Cisco Foundation in the form of donations to Techfugees France. Since these devices  are able to support a larger number of users accessing the internet simultaneously, we are aiming at deploying  these boxes for community-based rather than individual usage. To do so, we are exploring the possibility of providing this equipment to housing centers, known as Centre d’Hebergement (CHU) for displaced persons, in and around the Paris region. 

We would also like to expand the regional coverage of our operations by expanding from Paris and Lyon to other urban centers. Eventually, we would also like to target  displaced communities which are more geographically isolated and where access to information could be most impactful. 

 

  1. Going beyond access to internet and adopting a holistic approach to address the diverse barriers preventing access to information for displaced communities

Over the course of the initial phase of this project, we interviewed several individuals working across a range of organizations and associations supporting displaced individuals in France. 

What we understood was that access to the internet is only one of the several hurdles to overcome in enabling access to information for displaced communities. Other obstacles include varying levels of literacy (both digital and language) and lack of smart device (phone, computer, tablet) possession among displaced communities (see research conducted by Solinum for an overview of variations in device coverage among precarious individuals in France). Additionally, some displaced communities may be isolated from networks and communities that serve as important sources of information. 

Addressing these diverse barriers will be complementary to our efforts to improve access to the internet for displaced communities in France. Engaging with organizations providing devices such as smartphones, computers and/or tablets, such as Emmaus Connect, or with initiatives aimed at democratizing access to information such as refugies.info will be crucial in adopting a holistic approach to connectivity. 

  1. Knowledge Sharing

Lastly, we would also like to generate evidence through research on the topic of access to information for displaced communities in France. This will be done through:

  • Continuous monitoring of our operations to gauge our impact along with operational efficiency and sustainability
  • Establishing rapid and lean feedback mechanisms within our ecosystem  to understand the evolution of needs on the ground through, and 
  • Contributing to the larger pool of knowledge on the subject in France by collaborating with organizations also attempting to address the connectivity gap for displaced persons in France, such as the Délégation interministérielle à l’accueil et à l’intégration des réfugiés (DIAIR) which has recently launched a study on the subject. 

We are excited to launch the second leg of our project and open to hearing from anyone interested on the subject. If you are interested in our operations, research or have suggestions that could help us improve access to information for displaced communities in France, we’d be very keen on hearing from you!

 

Article written by Sharanya Thakur, co-lead Techfugees France and her team.