UN refugee agency staff trial new version of Skype

Skype, the software application that allows people to make voice calls via the internet, is rolling out new technology that will allow humanitarian workers in refugee camps to contact colleagues, family and friends for free.

Skype has developed a low-bandwidth version of its software that can be used by staff working for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in "hardship locations" (defined as having the poorest basic amenities and safety) around the world.

The UNHCR approached Skype two years ago to explore ways to provide a communication system for staff that worked in remote regions and was low-cost.

The software has already been successfully piloted in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, and is now being rolled out to 40 more locations, including Somalia, Chad, Burma and Nepal.

This month Skype and the UNHCR hope staff in at least 60 locations will have access to the new software. By the end of 2011 they hope to have extended coverage to 80% of UNHCR hardship locations, giving access to more than 3,000 workers.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the partnership with Skype had removed, at a practical level, "some of the most challenging barriers to communications that we experience in these locations". He added: "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."

Skype and the UNHCR are now exploring ways to adapt the technology to allow refugees to contact family and friends across borders and to help in repatriation and resettlement efforts. No details about how this would work are expected until the second half of next year, after the roll-out to staff is completed. Central to any discussions would presumably be how to give refugees in difficult locations access to computers. Antoine Bertout, key partner relations manager at Skype, who has been leading the project, has already ruled out plans to adapt the new technology for use in mobile phones, citing poor networks and high costs as the biggest obstacles in some places.

However, the success of the partnership between Skype and the UNHCR could have wider implications for communication technology in countries where the current bandwidth prohibits the use of Skype.

"There is definitely lots of potential, and we are very excited," said Bertout. "We have proof of concept, we know it's working and we would look to offer a similar experience of access to other NGOs or organisations facing a similar environment."

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