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To help build a better future for refugees, UNHCR’s chat services suit their preferences, meet their needs, and safeguard their data

A leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty.
Cosas de Mujeres community activity. © Julia Zulver









March 2023

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UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is the United Nations agency mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. Through its commitment to putting people at the center of its humanitarian response, UNHCR saves lives, protects rights, and builds a better future for those it assists.


The total number of WhatsApp chat lines


Number of total users


Number of nationalities served since the pilot launch

“If you are serious and realistic about the resources it will take to get a good service working, if you spend the time you need to work out what you want to say and provide, and if you engage communities end-to-end I’d say you have the nuts and bolts of a successful messaging service in your hands.” John Warnes, Deputy Head of Innovation (acting), UNHCR
¨I´m a WhatsApp fan. This channel that UNHCR has made available is very important as it allows us to have direct communication and I think that was missing.¨ Azalea, 72, forcibly displaced person from Venezuela in Brazil.

One organization. 20 chat lines, 60 000+ users - and building

Driven by commitment to digital inclusion for all and spurred by covid

UNHCR’s Digital Innovation programme aims to ensure that refugees and the communities that host them have the right, and the choice, to be included in a connected society, and can have their voices heard in the design and implementation of humanitarian response. As part of its Accountability to Affected People (AAP) commitments, UNHCR must strengthen the digital dimension of its interaction with the people it serves.

Although the Innovation Team had been working on digital inclusion for several years before the pandemic, COVID-19 was an impetus for change. Physical distancing measures ushered an accelerated transition towards digital communication channels. These have also come at a time when the communities served by UNHCR are more connected than ever and are frequently seeking engagement with the organization in a way that fits in with the lives they are building.

The chatbot now enhances the UNHCR’s overall work, which includes significant human assisted dimensions.

Why WhatsApp?

“This tool is a system to strengthen communication with refugee populations in Ecuador. The main objective is that refugee persons can access vital, updated verified information to know that they can trust this information to know their rights in the country and how they can contact UNHCR and partners, how to apply for asylum as well as a variety of content.” Diego Niardi, Inter-Agency Coordination Officer.

From a pilot to multiple country service lines

Working with Turn.io and using WhatsApp’s Business API, a pilot for two way communication with forcibly displaced people was initiated. The first iteration supported relationship management with communities by providing  automated responses and valid, accurate and credible information. 

For UNHCR it was vital to devise a mechanism to facilitate informed decision-making by users when it comes to understanding and accepting the terms and conditions of the service. To ensure better compliance with the organization's Data Protection Policy regarding informed consent, an initial message was configured for first-time users. This message provides a brief overview of what data is collected, who has access to it, for that purpose and what rights users have over it. 

Through triaging of requests and messages this was later augmented by adding human assisted responses and elements such as audio files for visually impaired individuals or for those who have literacy challenges.

At present, individuals can seek answers to common questions about their rights and the services available to them (provision of office locations, advice on asylum procedures, access to services from partner organizations). They can also be referred quickly to UNHCR staff when they need specific support - for example to report an incident of violence or abuse.

User testing and contextualizing each service individually

Key to the WhatsApp services is contextualizing the service to each country where UNHCR is supporting communities - and working with them through user testing to see how they adapt and respond to the service and then make changes where required. 

“We are not a top down organization - and in fact are quite federated. We do not have a global set of content to push down to each country and then push out through our lines. The need of each community determines the service built. But this doesn’t mean that we start from scratch because our staff in different countries have already worked through a lot of the information they are providing to communities and have prepared it for different platforms - the main one being https://help.unhcr.org/.” John Warnes.

Contextualisation has resulted in different features and functions. For instance:

Surprising findings along the way … 

A surprising finding of UNHCR research into the chat services was how important such work has been for the staff in the country operations. Maintaining proximity through digital channels had a positive impact on staff satisfaction in their functions.

… and confirming that investments in solutions like these have positive impact in the protection, assistance and empowerment of the people serves 

The service lines show time and time again an ability to lift an important amount of workload for colleagues in the field, thereby allowing them to allocate their efforts and resources in other strategic priorities. For example, protection officers in the Ecuador operation have reportedly saved one hour to an hour and a half of time a day due to reduction in time expenditure required to answer info requests.

However, this is not a ‘quick win’ in order to save time. The teams needed to invest more time and effort in not only creating an adequate service that meets the needs of users (with extensive user testing etc.) but also answering people’s questions and knowing how to refer any issues or concerns that require follow-up from specialized staff. It creates space for teams to think more strategically about interventions rather than ‘firefighting’, which can spark new and innovative approaches to staff members’ work.

Read more about UNHCR’s key findings in this blogpost - https://medium.com/unhcr-innovation-service/six-key-findings-from-engaging-communities-through-messaging-apps-95a9291818f7

Measuring success through creating a meaningful service

The success of the UNHCR service lines are determined around whether they create meaningful exchanges led by communities that, over time, contribute to building trust. 

“We have certain things that we want to get across as an organization,but the main criteria of success comes through knowing that our community is satisfied and is actually using the service. In this, community feedback is critical.” John Warnes


Insights for humanitarian organizations looking to use Chat

Turn.io features used:


Bulk Messaging


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