Digital Developments: Harbingers of Humanitarian Change? — Research Paper No. 15

Carleen Maitland

Refugee crises, with millions of people seeking safety by fleeing across national borders, are unfolding amid increasingly intensive use of information and communication technologies. Mobile phones are indispensable digital companions to many people forced to flee their homes. Humanitarian organizations use biometrics, database and mobile payment systems, and artificial intelligence, aiming to streamline their services, enhance accountability and reduce costs.

These technologies have arguably improved refugees’ lives, and by some measures, improved assistance, yet they can also generate harms. While people are fleeing, information stored on their phones can make them targets for interrogation and torture. Easy access to disinformation can increase their vulnerability to fraud. The phones themselves can become infected with viruses and spyware, compromising sensitive information or impinging upon privacy. Humanitarian agencies’ use of complex information systems can create other vulnerabilities.

The author analyzes three digital trends with the potential to create profound changes, perhaps even to redraw the boundaries of what constitutes “protection,” a notion upon which the humanitarian system is based. Understanding these developments is critical for humanitarian leaders, public policy makers and academics to successfully inform and manage the shared responsibility of the protection of refugees and internally displaced people.

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