People rely on smartphones and the internet to communicate with each other. However, some people have little or no access to this technology. This is known as ‘digital exclusion’. People who are digitally excluded often also have other serious social and health issues to deal with in their lives.
This project aimed to tackle digital exclusion among survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking. We worked with Unseen UK, a Bristol-based charity that gives care and support to survivors, offering a safe place for them to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives.
The telecommunications company BT donated smartphones, SIM cards and data bundles to 74 survivors who were being supported by Unseen. Researchers based at the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West (ARC West) and the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute at the University of Bristol wanted to see if access to smartphones could improve the mental health and wellbeing of survivors.
We trained and supported Unseen staff to do short interviews with survivors who were given mobile phones.
Unseen staff interviewed 27 survivors of 15 different nationalities. We collected phone use data and measured their wellbeing using a capability wellbeing measure called ICECAP-A. This is a holistic quality-of-life measure that focuses on a person’s current experience of independence, security, love and friendship, achievement and enjoyment.
We also surveyed 12 members of Unseen staff. They shared their thoughts about the project, the impact that the phones have had on survivors and lessons learnt about rolling this out more widely.
We analysed the data and published a report with Unseen (PDF). Also, our article in the Journal of Human Trafficking shows that having mobile phones made a difference to survivors’ wellbeing and mental health.
Our main finding is that smartphones are very valuable for support, integration and access to services. They improved survivors’ wellbeing:
“You cannot live without the phone, it’s like… your best friend… it gives less stress …you can make it easy where you are, call your friends, call people … arrange appointments, Google Translate, email, which definitely makes me feel safe in day-to-day activity.”
Smartphones helped survivors develop the skills they need to move towards independent living, finding their way around services, systems and local areas:
“This telephone keeps me orientated because I sometimes have problems with knowing where I am and where I need to go, and this phone helps me to keep a chart of all the places.”
Smartphones and data bundles helped survivors to stay in touch with family, friends and support networks, including health and legal services and parenting support. Survivors could access educational courses and resources, and use translation, communication and navigation tools to find their way in new situations:
“Yeah, I’m doing an IT course. Yes, it helps me because sometimes I was going into YouTube, getting classes from YouTube to learn more.”
Access to technology should not be seen as a solution on its own. It should be offered as part of a holistic support package for survivors that meets their needs. Support staff should play a key role in enabling access.
Read the academic research article, published in the Journal of Human Trafficking.
Download ‘Impact of mobile technology for survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking: A mixed method study’ (PDF) from the Unseen website.
Find out more about this project in this video:
Our research showed that having a mobile phone helped survivors in many ways. Our policy recommendations include:
We are linking with others who are working and researching in this area, to develop plans for how technology can be integrated into support packages in a cost-effective way, to support policy development.
This work was supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, University of Bristol, the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund, and the Rosetrees Trust.