A Social Informatics Analysis of Refugee Mobile Phone Use: A Case Study of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp

10 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2015

See all articles by Carleen Maitland

Carleen Maitland

Pennsylvania State University

Ying Xu

Pennsylvania State University

Date Written: March 31, 2015


Given the scourge of armed conflict and increasing incidents of severe weather, the numbers of displaced persons around the globe is at all-time high. For those fleeing armed conflict, they may arrive in their new location with a mobile phone and in some cases well-developed internet skills. This changing landscape and skill sets of refugees are creating challenges and opportunities alike for the United Nations agencies (e.g. UNHCR, World Food Program, UNICEF) and implementation partners tasked with meeting their needs. Also, as globally the average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years, this scenario represents an interesting use case at the intersection of the traditional information and communication technologies for development (ICTD) and crisis informatics disciplines.

In particular, this research seeks to understand: What level of mobile phone ownership and use is typical among refugee camp youth? How has their use changed (if at all) between the pre-conflict and refugee lives? What types of internet-based services might interest refugee youth and what are service providers likely to make available?

Data for this exploratory research were collected via pen-and-paper survey in the Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan in January 2015. Za’atari is an outlier among refugee camps, with its wealthier and more IT-savvy refugee population. Hence, this analysis helps understand mobile phone use in what is now the state-of-art refugee context, but is likely to reflect future conditions in other camps around the world.

Based on data from 174 youth, the research finds 86% of youth own mobile handsets and 83% own SIM cards. Even with reasonably high levels of SIM card ownership, 79% of youth also borrow SIM cards from friends and family. Unsurprisingly, mobile phones are the most popular medium for accessing the internet. This was true in Syria as well, but is even more so in the camp. In the camp, over half of youth access the internet one or more times per day.

In terms of communication services, WhatsApp was the most frequently used to communicate to those in both Jordan and Syria, while mobile voice was used more frequently for communicating within Jordan.

When asked about favorite online information sources, the six most frequently mentioned were: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, TV and Wikipedia, with Google being significantly more popular. Without resource constraints, the youth indicated they would like more access to Instant Messaging/WhatsApp, news sources and increased opportunities to communicate with people via social media.

Like many youth around the globe, the Za’atari youth frequently help family and friends as well as receive help to use the internet. A multivariate analysis examining predictors of camp-based internet use found education, sex and previous experience, respectively, are the most significant predictors. These results are in line with findings on internet use from studies in a variety of contexts.

Given the high level of internet use among refugees, they appear to be likely candidates for online programming. However, youth have less computer as compared to mobile phone experience than the adults. Hence, basic computer training may be necessary prior to successful online program implementation. Additionally, our experience and observations in the camp suggest the UN agencies and their implementation partners have the skills to successfully implement such a program.

These results provide interesting evidence of the use of mobile phones as an important source of information for displaced persons. It also provides insights into the transition from a crisis to the recovery phase of a disaster. As Za’atari camp continues to grow and develop from a temporary to a somewhat permanent residence, the diversity and complexity of ICT-based services evolves as well.

Suggested Citation

Maitland, Carleen and Xu, Ying, A 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: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2588300 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2588300

Carleen Maitland (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park
State College, PA 16802
United States

Ying Xu

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park
State College, PA 16802
United States

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