'Digital Divide' on a navy background with an image of a person being blocked from wifi

13 October 2021

Last year, we (at Cardiff STAR) helped someone to get in contact with their family for the first time in six months. The first time since the pandemic had started. The first time since the world had shut down. 

A data pack is all it took for a family to finally be safe in the knowledge that their loved one was alive and well. There was an inexplicable moment of joy as they spoke. This is one of the aims of STAR’s Digital Divide campaign – to allow for families, friends and others supporting each other to connect.  

What is the digital divide? 

Devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones were instrumental for students during the pandemic, allowing them to attend lectures and access online resources. However, many refugees and people seeking asylum were unable to access devices or WiFi during the pandemic. As students, we understand the vital importance of accessing educational resources, but were upset when we noticed that not all people could access these. 

‘A woman seeking asylum told us that she spends £30 a week on data from the Lyra mobile network. This is a substantial portion of the asylum support allowance of £39.63 a week. She spends the limited data on google maps since she does not know London, English classes on zoom, calling family, reading articles and more.’ 

It is seen as a privilege and a luxury to gain access to the internet and digital devices. But is this still the case when people have no choice to leave their homes? Does this still hold when banking, food shopping, news reading, socialising is transferred online? Is it still a luxury when deprivation of the internet and access to digital devices threatens both physical and mental health? The answer is no. The internet must not be exclusive.

One man seeking asylum, who was housed temporarily in a hotel with WiFi during lockdown, told us that without the internet it would have brought back the trauma of being in political prison in Russia. He said: “When you have no one to support you and share your feelings, you need the internet to connect with people, to make your life easier. Because if your mental health is not good, it worsens your physical health.”’ 

It is undeniable that technology and data have become more of a lifeline for us all. Our lives were uprooted. We were all trying to move every aspect of our lives online. Nonetheless, many individuals fell through the cracks and they continue to do so. 

What did students do to take action?

STAR students from across the country met together on zoom, ironically made possible thanks to our internet and digital devices, to create a digital divide campaign and action plan.  Through this campaign, we hoped to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees were not further left behind by a lack of access to necessary technology. Our aim was to help improve access to the internet and devices.

Through the various lockdowns, we worked to raise awareness on the digital divide and support the people in our local communities who are refugees and people seeking asylum. 

We collected nearly 200 petition signatures, urging phone companies to make their services more accessible and affordable to refugees and people seeking asylum. Two phone companies, Vodafone and SMARTY, responded to the petition, saying they have made a commitment to making sim cards available for refugees and people seeking sanctuary.  

We also:

  • held online English conversation classes 
  • fundraised to donate digital devices to those who needed them
  • hosted an online panel event with digital divide charities to share what can be done to reduce the digital divide. The speakers included:
    • Jaz O’Hara, Worldwide Tribe and co-founder of Jangala 
    • Nikos Souslous, founder of Ready Tech Go
    • Richard Thanki, co-founder of Jangala

What did we learn from getting involved in the Digital Divide Campaign?

  1. Persistence and patience

‘From being part of the campaign process, I learnt that we all could spend more time helping support and spread campaigns. Creating campaigns requires hard work, and getting people to support the campaign and put the support into action is often easier said than done. People are bombarded with plentiful campaigns that require support, and we have found that people want to help but are ‘too busy’ and cannot offer more than sympathy. Campaigns therefore raise a lot of awareness, but the action side can feel disheartening at times. I have learnt that campaigning requires persistence and patience.’  – Amy

  1. Sharing experiences from people with lived experience

‘A key reason why I joined the steering group for the campaign was reading Ahmed Noori’s blog post about Covid highlighting the digital divide. It was a post which we continuously came back to during the campaign process and any future blog posts because it was important to ensure that in everything we were doing we were still highlighting what it was like for those with lived experience.’ – Taya 

  1. Being inclusive and learning from others

‘We didn’t just approach the campaign as if we were the only ones campaigning. We identified other organisations that were directly working to bridge the divide in a similar way we were. We learned from their approaches, and we made sure that others could learn more about their work by inviting them to speak at our online panel event, led by Amy.’ – Taya

Overall, we learned that even if an issue is very prevalent, there is always something that you can do to start the conversation. We hope that our campaign started a conversation in STAR groups and communities across the UK. We hope that the digital divide in our society will be eradicated, with everyone having access to the same opportunities. Our society only benefits when all of us are afforded the chance to access such opportunities. No one should be left behind.

What can people do to get involved? 

Find out more and support incredible organisations working in this area:

  • Refugee Info Bus – old phones, chargers etc. could be sent to them to aid individuals seeking sanctuary who have just arrived in Northern France, Greece and the UK
  • Jangala – an organisation aiding in providing internet access to those needing it; check out more about their first product Big Box
  • Ready Tech Go – based in London, the organisation is committed to making technology accessible to any individual who requires it, with their aim also being to be eco-friendly in their approach. You can donate devices and funds

Amy was previously the treasurer at UCL STAR and is currently doing outreach and signposting work for Host Nation, a charity that matches local Londoners to befriend refugees and people seeking asylum. This includes listening to befrienders and helping with finding digital devices and SIM cards. Taya was previously co-president at Cardiff STAR is currently training to be a barrister. She hopes to practice in human rights and international public law areas.

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