In June 2019, Mercy Corps and the Signal Program at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative surveyed residents of two refugee camps along the northern Italian border in Como and Ventimiglia. Drawing on the Signal Program at HHI's research into migrant WiFi connectivity challenges and health impacts, and Mercy Corps’ sector-leading work on refugee information access, the research team conducted a series of quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, and observation. This project asked: How does WiFi connectivity support well-being among people on the move? What standards should exist to support connectivity in humanitarian settings? What challenges remain for the sector to realize the full human rights of those it seeks to serve?
Based on this research and prior study among Syrian refugees, at least one answer to those questions is clear: WiFi connectivity positively correlates to reduced depression and anxiety among migrants and refugees, and connectivity has a direct relationship to improved measures of psychosocial well-being. Humanitarians invested in the resiliency and positive health outcomes of people on the move should take note of these critical findings.
Together with the Signal Program at HHI, Mercy Corps has put together a package of research highlighting this impact, as well as a guidance toolkit and accompanying white paper that is ready to use for teams looking to implement WiFi.
Connection during COVID‑19
The impact of isolation, and the inability to connect has become even more apparent during the COVID‑19 pandemic. As COVID‑19 continues to impact the daily lives of people around the world, reliable WiFi remains a valuable resource for vulnerable people. From access to telehealth services to reaching online coursework, Mercy Corps’ community WiFi initiatives have empowered people to get the information they need even when in lockdown. Beyond even these digital adaptations of everyday life, the pandemic has forced even the most basic human interactions to the digital space, whether that is a Zoom call or FaceTiming with friends and family. While the results of the study were generated before the outbreak of the pandemic, the reality of quarantine and forced isolation has provided an even deeper appreciation of affordable and reliable WiFi connectivity.
WiFi Guide and White Paper
This guide serves as a collected reference for establishing a rights-based approach to provide mobile Internet access directly to affected populations in refugee camps via WiFi connectivity as aid in refugee camps. The rapid evolution of technology, connectivity-oriented humanitarian resources, private-public partnerships, and affected population needs will require practitioners to update their minimum standards of good practice on at least an annual basis. This guide and related references offer an overview of key resources for routine updates collected by global experts in this field. The guide also offers a preliminary sample of what shared minimum standards for WiFi connectivity as aid could require.
Accompanying the guide is a white paper, which outlines the research trip findings as they related specifically to the two camp locations. The white paper is essentially a narrative explanation of the circumstances by which the guide was created. Building off of existing connectivity tools and surveys, we looked at the two locations during the research trip to ensure feasibility of implementing the final guide.
Impact of Connectivity Research
The research has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
Background: Migrants often rely on digital connectivity enabled by WiFi hotspots accessed via technologies such as mobile phones. However, there is a lack of evidence of the relationship between WiFi use and mental health during displacement. We assessed the relationship between symptoms of depressive disorder and digital connectivity, as well as potential mediating mental health outcomes of perceived social support and self-efficacy.
Methods: This study included a cross-sectional, census survey of displaced individuals in a transit camp in Italy. The survey consisted of a structured questionnaire: connectivity was operationalized as WiFi use in the past week and mobile phone ownership. Mental health status was evaluated by interviewer-administered screening tools for depressive disorder (8-item Patient Health Questionnaire), perceived social support (Duke-UNC Functional Social Support Questionnaire), and self-efficacy (General Self-Efficacy Scale).
Results: In total, 104 migrants were included (97% men). The median age was 26 years (interquartile range 22-30). Nearly two-thirds (72%) of participants accessed WiFi daily in the past week, and 60% owned a mobile phone. Over 86% of participants had symptoms consistent with moderate/major depressive disorder. There is a trend between daily access to WiFi in the past week and increased social support and perceived self-efficacy (OR: 1.28, 95% CI: 0.52 – 3.13 and OR: 1.41, 95% CI 0.57 – 3.48, respectively), and lower odds of depressive symptoms (OR: 0.84, 95% CI 0.16 – 4.44). This data provides evidence of the positive role of WiFi access in the mental health of displaced persons in a refugee camp setting.
Work With Us
Starting in 2015, Mercy Corps has been collaborating with external partners such as the Italian Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, and local NGOs to support WiFi networks for vulnerable communities across six countries. Mercy Corps provides support for WiFi and connectivity projects from proposal development to ongoing monitoring and maintenance with technical advising, local IT capacity building, and equipment installation. We work with our partners to ensure participants have equitable access to information on reliable networks in a sustainable manner. For more information about WiFi initiatives at the Puerto Rico office, visit our blog post, Signal Found: Mercy Corps & Community WiFi. If you’re interested in partnering with Mercy Corps to establish community connectivity hotspots, please reach out.
Monitoring & Evaluation and Connectivity Officer | Technology for Development