Digital risks: safeguarding refugees and host communities in accessing online services, learning and job opportunities

ILO and UNHCR co-hosted third installment of the Learning Lab Series on comprehending digital risks and how vital this is to safeguard forcibly displaced populations and host communities in unlocking the advantages of the digital economy.

News | 04 October 2023
Geneva, Switzerland (ILO News) – In the dynamic landscape of the digital economy, where opportunities to empower forcibly displaced populations abound, technological advancements bring an array of risks. Recognizing the imperative to address these challenges, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) jointly convened the third installment of the ongoing Learning Lab series. The discussion focused on 'digital risks' in gig work and in the broader digital economy, providing insights to effectively mitigate risks and cultivate a safer digital environment for displaced populations and their host communities.

Themed ‘Understanding Digital Risks: Protection for Displaced and Host Communities in the Digital Economy’, this Learning Lab systematically explored the multifaceted risks faced by displaced populations in navigating digital services and employment. Zulum Avila, ILO Specialist in Employment Strategies for the Digital Economy, underscored the need of comprehending these risks, emphasizing their impact on security, privacy, trust, competitiveness, and even social cohesion and mental well-being. John Warnes, Senior Innovation Officer at UNHCR Innovation Service, highlighted the immense scale of this problem based on UNHCR’s work. He called for collective action in addressing digital risks and invited private sector partners, NGOs, and local organizations to contribute in creating safe digital environments for decent work.

Assessment and mitigation framework of digital risk

To comprehensively address and mitigate digital risks, it's essential to examine their various dimensions.  Sophie Bennani-Taylor, Doctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, introduced a comprehensive framework categorizing digital risks based on complex interactions between people navigating the Internet, hardware and software, locations, practices and power relations.

The framework distinguishes four categories of digital risk:
  • Infrastructure-related risks include poor network security and weak data protection environment;
  • Access-based risks are related to careless use of someone else's wireless network, devices;
  • Service-based risks such as data leaks, confidentiality breaches, and issues specific to digital labour platforms such as physical risks and unrestricted use of algorithms; and
  • Use-based risks involving scams and fraudulent activity targeting persons of concern and, accessing unauthorized resources.
Effectively managing digital risk involves tailored prevention and mitigation strategies aligned with specific risk categories and factors such as influenced by factors such as race, gender, age, sexuality, citizenship, and status of persons of concern. Bennani-Taylor shared ways of supporting digital risk management and prevention, including:
  • Collaborative efforts with policymakers, regulators, and national infrastructure providers to secure networks and connectivity infrastructure.
  • Partner with the third and private sectors for increased digital security effectiveness and scale.
  • Amplify efforts of service providers, digital labour platforms, government agencies and regulators to shape a secure digital environment.
  • Engage more with digital technology users, particularly with community and refugee organizations through digital risk awareness and training campaigns based on the local context.
Aaron Martin, Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Data Science at the University of Virginia, emphasized that effectively mitigating digital risks relies on recognizing the category to which a specific risk belongs and identifying the responsible parties for mitigation. This framework enables users, such as UN agencies supporting refugee inclusion, implementing partners, national and local government agencies, to provide suggestions and establish expectations regarding roles and responsibilities for mitigating different risks across various categories.

Digital risks faced by refugees

Navigating the digital world of work exposes refugees to a range of risks. Samah Ibrahim, Digital Facilitator at Terre des Hommes, shed light on these risks, including identity theft and challenges stemming from a lack of digital literacy and awareness. Refugees face both common and unique risks, as emphasized by Nicholas Oakeshott, Senior Policy Officer at UNHCR, who highlighted tailored online scams and profile-related risks. Additionally, risks within refugee communities can vary based on factors such as gender, age, and skills. Martin discussed how online risks can manifest as physical risks, such as human trafficking, particularly in the context of online recruitment scams.

Within the gig economy, concerns arise regarding unclear algorithm management, limited legal safeguards, and difficulties with payment of refugee workers in platforms due to lack of online bank accounts and officially recognized documentation, said Avila, from the ILO. She emphasized that while online platform work has its benefits, it often spans various time zones and compels individuals in less favorable time zones to work at night. This not only jeopardizes their physical well-being but also disrupts their time with family and friends, significantly impacting social interactions. Workers engaged in platform service provision such as deliveries and home aid persons may face tangible physical risks such as robbery or other forms of assault.

Addressing digital risks demands a comprehensive ecosystem approach, as elucidated by Oakeshott. The UN system and the World Bank provide crucial technical guidance to nations in formulating regulatory frameworks for enhanced surveillance of digital risks. The private sector has the potential to construct secure digital platforms for users, including refugees, while researchers have a crucial role in understanding evolving technologies like generative AI and identifying opportunities and risks.

This Learning Lab provided valuable insights into the challenges of digital risks and their mitigation. The upcoming session will further delve into advancing fair and inclusive work for forcibly displaced and stateless persons on digital platforms.

Did you miss the Learning Lab? Watch - Recording of the third Learning Lab session

This event was supported by the PROSPECTS Opportunity Fund project on the Promotion, inclusion and protection of refugees and host communities in the gig economy, with the generous funding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.