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Aid Workers get Skype App for Refugee Hot Spots

By Susan Carey Dempsey on December 6, 2010No Comment

It’s a problem as old, you might say, as humankind: the plight of refugees seeking sustenance, protection and guidance as they flee their homes in times of crisis. From Adam and Eve on down through the ages, through wars, natural disasters, famine and drought, men and women have gathered their families and braved the unknown to escape the unthinkable. A partnership announced today by  the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Skype will deploy customized technology to enable aid workers in some of the most remote, dangerous locations  in the field to connect with colleagues and access support.

Skype has developed a customized, low-bandwidth version of its communications software, for deployment across 120 hardship locations served by UNHCR staff members around the world.   The new software has been tested successfully in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan and is now available to 1,010 staff stationed in remote locations in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda. By the end of 2010, Skype and UNHCR plan for that to grow to more than 2,072 members of staff across 60 UNHCR locations including Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.  By the end of 2011, the aim is for Skype to be in at least 80 percent of UNHCR hardship locations and available to more than 3,000 staff members.

UNHCR aid workers are typically separated from their families for months at a time, sometimes with very little notice, and have limited opportunities for communication.  In addition, all UNHCR employees have to pay for personal calls. Thus, the UNHCR-version of Skype will provide both free and low-cost voice and video calls over the Internet even when accessed through low connectivity networks.  This will enable communications for humanitarian workers in some of the world’s most remote postings on the one hand, while lowering the cost of calling home on the other.

In a subsequent phase, Skype and UNHCR will explore the development of a communications solution that will benefit refugees more directly. Using the knowledge and experience from the deployment of Skype to UNHCR staff, the solution will aim to allow refugees to reach family and friends across borders and will also be used to facilitate protection operations, including repatriation, resettlement and family reunification.

“Skype has removed, at a very practical level, some of the most challenging barriers to communications that we experience in these locations”, said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees“This will benefit not only UNHCR staff and their families at home but, potentially, the tens of millions of refugees and other displaced people in the world today.”

 Understanding the need to secure financial resources for refugees and to further support this partnership, Skype is contributing financially to UNHCR and will begin a campaign to increase public awareness of UNHCR operations and help raise additional funds. The campaign will initially deliver messages via Skype to connected users encouraging them to make a difference to the lives of refugees beginning this holiday period.  To find out more visit




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