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How Turkish mobile operators are helping the vast Syrian refugee population to help themselves

Turkish mobile network operators are designing services that will help Syrian refugees make their lives in the country

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Tech's role in tackling humanitarian crises

Turkey is home to the largest refugee population in the world, with 3.4 million Syrians – including 1.5 million Syrian children – according to Unicef. Meeting the immense humanitarian needs of this vast population requires the Turkish government, which shoulders most of the financial burden, UN agencies, charities and commercial businesses – particularly telecoms companies – to work together.

Turkish mobile network operators (MNOs) are redefining the role that telecoms should play in tackling humanitarian crises. There are three elements to this: ensuring the telecoms infrastructure is in place, tailoring mobile and internet contracts to Syrians’ requirements, and offering tools that help the refugees settle into life in Turkey.

To start with, the MNOs are building out the telecoms infrastructure to provide reliable communications services in the refugee camps and southern Turkish cities, to ensure that humanitarian agencies can coordinate their response and communicate with the Syrian communities, and that the displaced people can communicate with each other across borders and access essential information.

They are also working on tailoring mobile and internet packages to the requirements of refugees, in their own language and at an affordable price.

And finally, they are aiming to help refugees to help themselves through the provision of essential information in Arabic to help people settle, find work and arrange education for kids.

Turkey is currently accommodating a Syrian refugee population of 3.4 million. In contrast, the UK has promised to take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

According to Unicef, the UN agency focused on children, almost 67% Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. Many are housed in shelters with insufficient water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, or protection against poor weather.

Unicef estimates that more than 350,000 Syrian children remain out of school. Challenges include a lack of awareness about available educational services, language barriers, socio-economic obstacles and secondary school dropout. Unicef also reports that some destitute parents are engaging in child labour and child marriage, instead of sending their children to school.

Is connectivity a human right?

“The first thing a refugee asks when they arrive at a camp is not necessarily for water or food, but the password for the Wi-Fi. Many people consider smartphones a luxury, but it is not a luxury for somebody who has left their family behind or who has other family members travelling ahead of them,” says Kaan Terzioğlu, CEO of Turkcell, the largest mobile operator in Turkey.

“Many people consider smartphones a luxury, but it is not a luxury for somebody who has left their family behind or who has other family members travelling ahead of them”
Kaan Terzioğlu, Turkcell

It’s not just the operators that recognise the indispensable nature of connectivity. Increasingly, the humanitarian aid organisations are also beginning to regard access to affordable connectivity as a human need – alongside the basics of food, water, health, shelter, warmth and education – and as an essential tool for facilitating the awareness of and delivery of aid.

Connectivity for Refugees, an initiative from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, states: “Lack of connectivity constrains the capacity of refugee communities to organise and empower themselves, thus limiting potential for self-reliance and livelihoods.

“A connected refugee population can play a critical role in enabling organisations such as UNHCR to innovate effectively and to improve the quality of services that we provide.” 

Healthy competition

The three main MNOs in Turkey – Turkcell, Türk Telekom and Vodafone Turkey – have made significant investments in their networks to become the provider of choice to Syrian refugees.

The operators have improved their network coverage in the 22 refugee camps, including erecting new cell towers. In one case, as a pilot project, fibre has been laid in a refugee camp. Coverage has also been improved in the southern cities, such as Kilis, which have swollen rapidly to accommodate refugees. It is worth noting that only 7% of refugees in Turkey are housed in camps.

The operators have developed mobile and internet packages tailored to Syrian customers. They have recruited Arabic speakers in sales and customer service operations – including giving jobs to Syrian nationals – and produced marketing materials in Arabic. Türk Telekom has recruited a company run by Syrian refugees as a sales channel for its “Ahlan” service, which means “welcome” in Arabic.

No doubt there is a huge commercial incentive to recruiting this vast population. Turkcell is currently winning the battle, with 1.7 million Syrian customers. 

While as many as two-thirds are living below the poverty level, refugees still invest in mobile telephony, often spending more than Turkish nationals. “The typical monthly usage among prepaid customers is higher than that of an average Turkish prepaid client,” says Turkcell’s Terzioğlu.

“Turkcell has found that Syrians are very heavy data users, as many communicate with relatives through online platforms and IP-based apps rather than voice, but enough still use voice calls that they generate 10% of Turkcell’s international traffic.

“On average, Syrians spend twice as much on international calls as domestic customers. The churn rate is no different than Turkish users, so overall they are very valuable, very technologically capable and very motivated,” he adds.

Helping Syrian refugees to help themselves

Partly motivated by altruism and partly through desire to win the hearts and minds – and thus custom – of Syrians, the Turkish MNOs have unveiled a raft of initiatives to help the displaced Syrian population settle in Turkey.

Despite the proximity of Syria and Turkey, the languages spoken – Arabic and Turkish – are very different, and as few as 10% of refugees crossing the border speak any Turkish. This makes it difficult for refugees to find information on how to access essential services, such as schooling for their children, integrate into Turkish society or establish any sort of livelihood.

Turkcell has led the way, with a free mobile app, called Hello Hope, available to any Syrian, regardless of whether they are a customer. The award-winning app helps Arabic speakers learn the 700 most common Turkish words and expressions, provides an instant speech translation service between Turkish and Arabic, and has an FAQ section providing information on registration, access to public services including education and health, and location-based navigation to nearby facilities such as pharmacies, bus stops and ATMs. In February 2018, the app was extended to include Arabic news via a partnership with Daily Sabah Arabic.

Since its launch in September 2016, Hello Hope has been downloaded 750,000 times. The Turkish language learning cards have been viewed 460 million times, the instant speech translation feature has been used 11.3 million times, and the FAQ section has been viewed 4.6 million times.

Turkcell’s rivals are also stepping up their efforts. As part of its Ahlan programme, Türk Telekom has introduced courses to help the uninitiated Syrian refugees learn how to use the internet. This is an Arabic version of an initiative that has already trained 30,000 Turkish citizens to use the web.

During 2018, the NMO will offer free Turkish language and social living courses, including an introduction to Turkish social customs, daily living tips and a guide to famous cultural locations.

Coding for kids

Vodafone Turkey is focusing its educational effort on Syrian children. The MNO runs a Coding Tomorrow programme to teach children to code, under the direction of volunteer trainers, using courses such as MIT’s Scratch. Courses are run in parallel for Turkish and Syrian children.

“We believe it is not enough to only provide one-time support, such as food, clothing or shelter, for Syrian refugees, and that social projects to make it easier for the refugees to integrate and prepare them for the future are needed,” says Hasan Suel, chief external affairs officer at Vodafone Turkey.

“It is not enough to only provide one-time support, such as food, clothing or shelter, for Syrian refugees. Social projects to make it easier for the refugees to integrate and prepare them for the future are needed”
Hasan Suel, Vodafone Turkey

“This is why we provide Syrian refugee children with training in coding – to provide psychological support for the children who were forced to leave their homeland, and aid in meeting their educational needs. To date, Coding Tomorrow has reached nearly 750 Syrian children in Sanliurfa, Istanbul and Kilis,” adds Suel.

Vodafone Turkey plans to introduce courses for coding internet of things (IoT) applications using Arduino.

Fibre-powered technology and training centre

One of the limitations of online learning is that it requires a good data connection, which can be a tall order in a refugee camp crowded with mobile users.

The refugee camp near the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras is one of very few – perhaps the only – refugee camp worldwide with fibre connectivity. Turkcell has installed a high-speed data cable to power the Hello Hope technology and training centre, a pilot project, run in partnership with AFAD (the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency) and Prodea Systems, which will provide free education and training to Syrian refugees.

The training centre will offer Arabic versions of Turkcell Academy courses and Arabic versions of Khan Academy’s K12 (kindergarten to year 12 school) courses and training, studied on tablet computers.

Supporting Syrian-run businesses

Providing training and education will help Syrian adults, young and old, find jobs, but it is also important to facilitate the formation of Syrian-run businesses. Access to reliable communications is part of this, but the MNOs can help in other ways, too.

Türk Telekom has been sponsoring Gherbetna since 2016, a Syrian startup that offers social services and free information to the Syrian public. Gherbetna has now also become a sales partner for Türk Telekom’s Ahlan services.

Türk Telekom hopes to work with more Syrian businesses this year. In February 2018, the NMO opened up its startup accelerator programme PİLOT to applications from Syrian startup businesses. Successful applicants will receive TRY90,000 (UK £16,958) funding, as well as office space, cloud services and 240 hours of mentoring and training.

There remain other barriers to Syrian nationals setting up businesses, however, including difficulties with opening bank accounts – which also curbs Syrian consumers’ access to online purchasing.

Next steps

The Syrian refugee crisis is so big that it is difficult to identify what the long-term priorities should be and how best to tackle them. Mobile connectivity could be the conduit to providing the data that could answer some of those questions.

Working in partnership with National Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK), Boğaziçi University, UNHCR and MIT, Türk Telekom has initiated the D4R – Data for Refugees challenge. The project invites applications for data-driven projects that will improve the living conditions of the 3.5 million refugees in Turkey using anonymised mobile phone usage data from Türk Telekom’s Syrian customers.

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