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Unlocking Opportunities: The Crucial Role of Digital Inclusion for Refugees

"We are in a digital world and we need to move along with it."

by Emma Van Rhee and Freja Love-Edmonds


As we become ever-immersed in our digital age, just how much do you depend on technology in your daily routine? From our jobs to our studies, socialising with friends to watching the news, it’s hard to think of a world without technology at the centre of our day-to-day lives. 


Now imagine arriving in an entirely new country, with a new language, new systems and a new culture and you do not have access to a functioning device.


In 2020 the Home Office deployed an unlawful blanket policy of confiscating thousands of people's phones at the border, stripping people of any form of technology upon arrival and severing contact with friends and family overseas. Additionally, whilst the internet is relied upon to connect oneself to information and services, WiFi is not deemed as a requirement in Home Office-issued accommodation, leaving people disconnected and relying on expensive data packages which are not often accessible.


As outlined in “Offline and Isolated” [The Red Cross], digital exclusion for refugees is not only a barrier to essential services like booking healthcare appointments or seeking employment but is also a denial of the fundamental right to connect with loved ones and to become part of important new communities. This deprivation naturally leads to saddening levels of social isolation and deteriorating physical and mental well-being for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.This doesn’t have to be the case.


We explore just how powerful digital inclusion can be in combating social disparities and fostering a more cohesive society for everyone.





Education and Social Connection


“Kindness is a chain.”

We were lucky enough to speak to Emmanuel, an engineer from Iran, who has been in the UK with his family for just under a year. For Emmanuel, digital inclusion played a key role in helping him access online English classes and become a part of the Conversation Over Borders community. Emmanuel had been in the UK for 2 months when he first heard about Conversation Over Borders from Matt, the Wellbeing Coordinator at Conversation Over Borders, who was delivering support at the initial accommodation hotel Emmanuel had been housed in. 


Emmanuel has since joined the English & Befriending project and connected with a volunteer tutor for one-to-one English conversation classes.


 “I was so happy to do this, it was exactly what I was looking for… it gave me confidence and I learnt so much."

In December 2023 Conversation Over Borders received a message from Emmanuel’s tutor that his lesson had been disrupted by connectivity issues due to a lack of WiFi and a weak data connection. In the same lesson, Emmanuel had voiced that he would benefit from a laptop to comfortably access Conversation Over Borders' services and enrol in an additional college course but was unable to get one. 


“Me, my son and my wife, he’s a student and I go to college, we all need to use a computer for classes. My son has a lot of homework to do on the computer. He was always asking me ‘please buy a computer’. I used to have to go to the library and the college and use the computers there. Unfortunately, you can use it for only 1 hour at the college.”

The Digital Inclusion Team at Conversation Over Borders got in touch and offered a data-loaded Vodafone SIM card and a laptop, donated by Screen Share UK. 


“I didn’t know I could get one but my teacher suggested I ask for a computer and SIM card. They offered me a computer, I said yes of course because I really needed it. 

Now it’s really easy for me if I need to use the computer, I can open it and work like that. Also the internet is really important because I can use my phone everywhere. Nowadays computers, laptops and smartphones are used for learning, teaching and all things. I always need to use my laptop, my phone and the internet. 

My laptop helps me with English language, 90% of my search is about English language because I need to improve my English. I speak much better now, it's not perfect now but much better than it was before. I have done a lot of search about British Values, about democracy and individual liberty. I read a lot of topics and translate to my language to better understand.”

Digital inclusion was essential for Emmanuel and his family. Not only was he able to ease isolation with his one-to-one English classes, he was able to support his family with a laptop. Just one device for a family like Emmanel’s can unlock a multitude of online opportunities: staying in contact with loved ones overseas, healthcare access, and access to online English language, befriending and mental health support.





Seeking Employment


“My laptop helps me research topics about my career.”

Whilst people wait for their claim to be considered, they do not have the right to work in the UK. They can usually apply for permission for work if they have been waiting 12 months for a decision, and they are ‘not considered responsible for the delay’. However once allowed, they are restricted to the ‘shortage occupation’ list which restricts them to mostly ‘high-skilled’ jobs that require formal qualifications. 


The Home Office is unable to provide data on the number of asylum seekers granted permission to work.


Additionally, many degrees and qualifications obtained overseas are not recognised in the UK, Emmanuel points out that even with

“a Masters and 20 years of experience, I still have to go to the university to get another certificate… unfortunately, my degree is not accepted here.” 

During this wait, digital access is vital for access to health or financial resources, exploring employment opportunities, researching pathways into requalification, developing new or existing skills, and accessing support. Emmanuel explains,


“I studied engineering in my country, I was a Project Manager and I need to understand the difference between here and my country to improve my experience here and to be useful here. I need to finish college and apply for university. I want to get my certificate and get another degree so I can work in my field. Unfortunately, my degree isn’t accepted here. Even though I have a Masters and 20 years of experience, I still have to go to the university to get another certificate. My laptop helps me research topics about my career.”

The University of Oxford found that the most common type of digital support required by refugees was related to job searching, including job application support, CV workshops, and employer calls. Simply having the ability to create and distribute a CV online can significantly improve chances of receiving employment and provides access to jobs that exist solely in the online sphere. Additionally, 60% of businesses foresee a growing reliance on advanced digital skills in the coming five years. 


In July 2023, Conversation Over Borders and Screen Share UK partnered together to run an online 1-1 Digital Skills pilot to promote digital literacy, social connection, and the development of vital skills. Participants were offered Conversation Over Borders and Screen Share laptops to participate in the course and develop their skills once the classes had ended. Following a six-week period, all learners reported feeling "more confident" in navigating their online endeavours and expressed enthusiasm for developing essential digital skills.


To support the development of advanced digital skills and help facilitate employment for refugees, Code Your Future has an 8-month vocational software development course for students to learn the advanced programming and soft skills needed to start a tech career. This has already resulted in an impressive 70% of Code Your Future graduates starting careers in technology, unlocking numerous pathways to bolster economic growth.

Making access to tech possible and supporting the development of online skills, gives more people the opportunity to enhance and research employment pathways whilst they await their claim, resulting in higher levels of employment once they receive their Right to Work. 


Healthcare


In recent years, healthcare has become increasingly digitised, making access for digitally excluded refugees extremely difficult. Healthcare is a universal human right for all, but The Red Cross reported that many refugees delayed seeking medical help due to a lack of devices: they were unable to download the NHS app or didn’t have adequate translation services to book GP appointments or receive advice online.


To help mitigate the digitisation of services and widening inequality, Conversation Over Borders designed and offered healthcare workshops in English, Arabic and Farsi to explain healthcare rights, how to register with a GP, and how to access the NHS app: connecting people with vital information surrounding their rights and services available to them. This also decreases reliance on A&E services and encourages alternatives like going directly to pharmacies. In addition, this grants people seeking asylum the rightful privacy and autonomy over their health: decreasing reliance on others for access to their phones/ laptops to access online services.


Access to a device and confidence in using online platforms are crucial components in making healthcare services accessible for people with experience of displacement in the UK, ensuring they receive all the help and support they rightfully deserve. 


Community Building: “Kindness is a chain”


Now that Emmanuel’s confidence in English is growing and his laptop is allowing him to search for opportunities in his local area, he feels very strongly about giving back to the community and reminds us of the ripple effect of kindness.


“Conversation Over Borders really helped me, gave me confidence, and I learnt so much. I’m so grateful to you for providing this platform.

I really love the John Lennon song, Imagine, ‘imagine a world without borders’. I love that idea, it’s really my idea too. I want to be useful for society. I have registered for a lot of charities and filled out so many forms so that I can help more people. I have registered at a charity gym to volunteer. I think kindness is a chain, when you help me I have to help another person, this cycle should continue, by this we can make a really lovely community and society.

Kindness and love is really important, right now your company is teaching kindness, love and positive energy. This is my idea, to be a useful person in society. Your country gave me love, kindness and safety. I owe it to your country, I have to be useful in society. 
Developing kindness and love, in my opinion, is the best idea to prevent war, violence and anger. Developing love and kindness, this is the best way to make a lovely community without violence. You are doing that, you are giving kindness and help to others and I follow your example to help others and be a more useful person for this society and this country.”

Devices are tools that can be used by people to explore their next steps, whatever they may be. Whilst education and employment are made accessible through the presence of a reliable device, the opportunity to search for volunteering opportunities and be a part of a local or online community is also facilitated by digital inclusion.


Many people seeking asylum are regularly moved around the country by the Home Office which can intensify feelings of social exclusion. In these cases, strong digital relationships can provide stability in an otherwise tumultuous time where it is easy to feel isolated. This digitally inclusive environment creates a sense of belonging and community; enhancing social cohesion and reducing isolation. In essence, paving the way for a more interconnected society.


Here is what you can do to support us in promoting the digital inclusion of people with experience of displacement across the UK:


DONATE: Any old devices that are lying around your house can be safely wiped, donated and repurposed.


VOLUNTEER: If you have some free time, why not organise a tech drive in your community?


ADVOCATE: Use your voice! Does your workplace recycle its old tech? If not, make them aware of how this can be repurposed and the impact it can have. 


If you would like to support the Conversation Over Border’s Digital Inclusion Project or hear more information, please contact Ily: ily@conversationoverborders.org 

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