Digital Inclusion with Refugee Action

Digital Inclusion consultant Ed Maw explains the work he's been doing with Refugee Action.

Organisation Profile

How can refugees and people seeking asylum become more connected and online during lockdown?

“I am so glad to receive the laptop, it’s very useful for me because I can manage to do all the work from my homework” (Asylum-seeking family living in West Yorkshire)

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have helped 74 refugee and asylum-seeking households across four regions of the UK to get online, with many more to follow.  Addressing these digital exclusion needs has thrown up many challenges; this blog post captures some of our learning.

Digital exclusion during Covid-19 lockdown

Since lockdown, we have all been relying on the internet more than ever.  It has become a crucial part of our infrastructure, but unfortunately the internet is not equally accessible to all, now more than ever - the pandemic exacerbates existing digital inequalities, and their impacts.

We may take getting online for granted to keep in touch with friends and family, check health advice, do our shopping, and keep our jobs or lives on track while we're stuck at home, but if you don't have secure accommodation or income, even the basic level of access needed for emails or whatsapp is not guaranteed, let alone using video chat apps that we're suddenly all getting used to, but which use a lot of data. As our everyday activities have moved online, people with limited internet access are more marginalised than ever.

Jon Beech, Director at Leeds Asylum Seeker Support Network explains

What we’ve been doing at Refugee Action to tackle digital exclusion during lockdown

Refugee Action provides support for refugees and people seeking asylum in four regions of the UK, most of whom are experiencing the effects of digital exclusion.We've been working to practically improve their access to the internet during the pandemic by systematically mapping their unmet internet access needs on a short project over the last month.

We're still working on our needs assessments, but we've found that there are broadly two categories of need for internet access among our service users.

• Students and families with school-aged children needing laptops or tablets to access online learning

• People seeking asylum who are isolated and vulnerable with zero or limited access to the internet, where devices or simple smart phones and data top-ups can make a big difference

We have already identified and assisted people in urgent need, for example, due to health issues or other accessibility needs – we aim to be guided by each person’s experience of tech and work with them to match their skills and needs to appropriate kit, software and support. We’ve already prioritised a number of refugee students who were threatened with dropping out of their courses when their colleges stopped face to face teaching and went online – without internet access they could no longer participate in classes.

As well as the 74 households who we have supported to get online (through 38 laptops and 36 tablets), we have assessed a similar number as in need right now, but we also expect that may only be the tip of the iceberg. We estimate at the moment our largest number of households in need are families who can't access online homeschooling where, for example, only adults in the household have smartphones and the cost of data prevents internet access. Ideally we'd like to provide tablets and cheap data so the smartphones can be used as wifi hotspots so internet connections can be shared within households.

Data Connectivity

Access to data is a big obstacle to internet access even for people with a smartphone, so Refugee Action has already established a team who send data top-ups to service users identified by our project workers and volunteers as being without internet access. We also have an existing partnership with the wonderful Solidaritech, based in Bradford, who have access to sim cards with O2 data packages which we hope to be able to distribute to service users in and around Yorkshire - one of our larger clusters.

Skills and Training

IT and computer skills are the third component of the digital exclusion faced by Refugee Action service users, including awareness of how to stay safe online. For people without experience of using the internet, this has become a more significant issue. The logistics of remote training for people who have limited access to the internet can be a challenge during social distancing: videos can be a really accessible way to learn, but they depend on internet access. Schemes like Learning My Way offer downloadable documents that can be printed for offline use.

What’s next?

After our month long project in May 2020 we’ll be reflecting on the experience and integrating aspects of the work into Refugee Action’s regular practise. It’s really encouraging to see that refugee organisations like LASSN, SolidaritechNACCOM and Barnet Refugee Service, have been developing significant expertise in addressing this issue. We made a short survey of other areas of the voluntary sector, and while we may not have reached every corner of the industry, it feels like the pandemic has been very disruptive of existing work, demand for equipment is very high, so it’s sometimes been hard to find equipment of the right cost and specification in sufficient amounts – either refurbished or new.

So far, we have been relying on commercial sources for the devices that we are delivering to people in the asylum system. We have been able to pay for these thanks to the overwhelming generosity of Refugee Action’s supporters who donated to our Coronavirus Emergency Fund. We are also looking to build new corporate partnerships with any companies who would be interested in supporting this project.  

Recycled kit is obviously preferable for reasons of sustainability and value for money and so we have been in discussions with Computer Aid International and Devices Dot Now for future supplies of kit. In the longer term we expect that digital exclusion will continue to be an important issue so we’d love to learn about other organisations and groups working on this issue and to share experiences, challenges, tips and contacts.

If you have unused equipment hanging about please consider donating it for recycling. Organisations like those mentioned above can accept bulk donations thus avoiding charges for cleaning data from old kit, whilst saving the planet.