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Internet access as important as food, water to refugees, UN says

In some cases, refugees are willing to give up 10 days worth of food just to afford their data plans.

Staying connected is just as important to refugees as food, water and shelter.

For many refugees, access to the internet is just as important as essentials like food and water.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Data plans are so expensive that refugees spend about a third of their incomes to get online, according to a UN Refugee Agency study published Wednesday. In Tanzania, some refugees are willing to sell up to 10 days worth of food rations to buy a month of data for their phones, the study found.

The UN said the internet and smartphones allowed refugees to get crucial information, communicate with family members, access essential services and connect with their communities.

"In the world we live in today, Internet connectivity and smart phones can become a lifeline for refugees," Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement accompanying the study.

"Connectivity can help broaden the opportunities for refugees to improve their own lives and pursue a vision of a future that would otherwise be denied to them."

The UN's conclusions come amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II. More than 65 million people around the world have been pushed out of their homes by conflict. Many are in makeshift camps as they seek permanent relocation.

More than 1.1 million refugees fled to Europe from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugee's struggle has been widely documented through technology, haunting the world through social media.

The role of technology in the crisis has been the subject of a six-week investigation by CNET News, which found refugees in Greece using smartphones to find safe havens and communicating through networks on Facebook and WhatsApp. In Sweden and Finland, connectivity has helped refugees find jobs. In a French refugee camp, 400 people log on to a free Wi-Fi network everday.

The UN report said a lack of internet access threatens to cut off refugees from valuable resources that supersedes health care, education and clothing in importance for many.

A refugee in Kenya told the UN that internet access substituted for health care in some instances, serving as a digital instruction book for treating some illnesses.

"The problem is that in my community, getting timely access to first aid is hard, so it'll really help if an app can teach basic first aid, or warn of a disease outbreak," he told researchers.

Julian, a 26-year-old refugee in Nyarugusu, Tanzania, said connectivity made him aware of a deadly cholera outbreak in his camp that he otherwise wouldn't have known about.

The report found that refugees in the US, Europe and other developed countries have access to at least a 2G network. But in other parts of the world, a fifth of refugees have no mobile coverage at all.

The digitally stranded refugees are cut off from from information and unable to keep in touch with their friends and family. The UN found Facebook and WhatsApp to be the most widely used communications platforms.

"If I had a phone, I could call and see if my children were alive," Nyawon, a 28-year-old foster mother told the UN. "I had one in South Sudan but I sold everything I had to get here."

The UN Refugee Agency has requested $6 million in aid to help connect the affected refugees. It hopes that might encourage private companies to help out as one mobile company did in Tanzania.

The company, Vodacom, set up a phone tower near a refugee camp to provide 3G access. It's helped refugees, who previously suffered from anxiety and felt isolated, to be able to reach out to the rest of the world and connect.

Private tech companies can also help through donating phones for refugees to use and providing subsidized costs for their products, as well as providing network availability.

"Private-sector partnerships are essential to scale the connectivity interventions globally," Roger Ford , the managing director of Accenture's Development Partnership, said.