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UNHCR and Skype Partner to Bring Easier, Cheaper Communication to Ground Staff


By: Debra O’Neill, Australia for UNHCR

For many UNHCR staff on the ground, part of their job involves being separated from their loved ones for months at a time. Communication is often expensive and infrequent, adding additional hardship to their work which takes place in some of the most challenging and difficult conditions in the world. Through a new global partnership with Skype, they now have a low-cost way to communicate with colleagues, friends and families.

To assist UNHCR ground staff, Skype developed a low-bandwidth version of its software free of charge. The software is now being deployed to UNHCR staff members around the world. The UNHCR version of Skype provides both free and low-cost voice and video calls over the Internet, accessible through low-connectivity networks. This will enable humanitarian workers in some of the world’s most remote postings to communicate with each other on the one hand, whilst also lowering the cost of calling loved ones at home on the other. After initial successful tests in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, the technology is currently being rolled out across UNHCR’s hardship locations. At the current rate of progress, Skype will be available in all 200 hardship locations by June 2011.

Based on the success of this project, Skype and UNHCR are now exploring a communications solution that will benefit refugees more directly. Using the knowledge and experience from the deployment of Skype to UNHCR staff, the solution will aim to allow refugees to reach family and friends across borders and will also be used to facilitate protection operations, including repatriation, resettlement and family reunification.

“Skype has removed, at a very practical level, some of the most challenging barriers to communications that we experience in these locations,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “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.”

“For us, helping the world’s displaced is not just about delivering the basics of food and shelter but ensuring they are able to access all the benefits of modernity, including the ability to communicate regularly with friends and family. Our partnership with a technological innovator like Skype significantly advances our aspirations in this regard,” António Guterres concluded.

Skype’s CEO Tony Bates, said: “We are a company dedicated to using our software to enable the world’s conversations and effect social change. Our partnership with UNHCR delivers on this mission in a most extraordinary way. We are excited by the future possibilities of this partnership. Skype truly is useful for everyone, wherever, and whoever you are.”

Skype also recently launched Skype Education, a new online platform to connect school teachers and students across the world, enabling collaborative projects and shared learning. UNHCR and Skype are currently exploring potential projects to make the most of this new platform in the context of globally displaced people.

For more information, please contact Jerome Nhan, UNHCR.