Lessons Learned: Refugee Mobile

Author: Staff

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Key Takeaways

  • The results of the Refugee Mobile study are encouraging. Socially, those who received a smartphone were 45% more likely to engage with someone of a different culture. They were also 38% more likely to visit their child’s teacher at school. 
  • Though there’s evidence that participants had better employment outcomes and higher earnings than non-participants, these results were not statistically significant. 
  • Those who received a smartphone were 35% more likely to engage with their case manager over the phone rather than in person, suggesting the program may have increased their sense of self-reliance. 


Refugee Mobile was a pilot program intended to ease the economic and social transition of refugees as they were settled in the Austin, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth, TX areas. 

Because internet access is foundational to modern life, and because only 61% of refugees reported having a smartphone when they first arrived in the U.S., Refugee Mobile provided participants with smartphones that included six months of service coverage and internet access. These smartphones were also pre-downloaded with applications that served as resources for communication, transportation, the job search, and language-skills development. 

The program was launched in 2016 at four Refugee Services of Texas (RST) locations.

To measure the impact of the Refugee Mobile program, LEO researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial. In total, 156 refugees were enrolled into the study. Of these, 82 were randomly assigned into the treatment group and received smartphones. The remaining 74 became members of the control group and gained access to RST’s standard refugee services. 

Members of both groups participated in two surveys—the first upon their arrival, and the second one year following their enrollment into the study. Of the 156 refugees who completed the initial survey, 111 participated in the one-year follow-up. 

What We Learned

The results of the Refugee Mobile study are promising on a number of fronts. Participants who received a smartphone were 28% more likely to have internet in their homes one year following their enrollment into the program. Similarly, 91% kept their smartphones after one year, while only 76% of individuals in the control group acquired a smartphone within the same period. 

Socially, members of the treatment group were 45% more likely to engage with someone of a different culture and 38% more likely to visit their child’s teacher at school. There’s also evidence that receiving a smartphone upon entry helped refugees develop proficiency in English—9% of those in the treatment group self-reported as being able to communicate “very well” in English one year after entering the U.S. while no members of the control group did. 

LEO researchers also find evidence that those who participated in the Refugee Mobile program had better employment and income outcomes than members of the control group. At one year following enrollment into the study, 77% of those who received a smartphone reported having paid employment, while only 67% of those in the control group said the same. Nearly 37% of program participants also reported earning monthly incomes over $1,500 per month, compared with only 20% of the individuals in the control group. Although these results are statistically insignificant, they are encouraging. 

Through this study, staff members of RST learned more about the efficiency of their refugee resettlement and case management program. Refugees who received a smartphone through Refugee Mobile were 6% less likely to come into the RST office to meet with their case manager. They were also 35% more likely to engage with their case manager over the phone. Though the majority of interactions across both the treatment and control groups still occurred in the office, 20% of the interactions between Refugee Mobile participants and their case managers took place over the phone, compared with 14% of the interactions between case managers and those in the control group. This decline in in-office visits supports the possibility that receiving a smartphone increased refugees’ sense of self-reliance, in turn saving their case managers’ time.   

The Refugee Mobile study also produced interesting insights into the lives of Swahili- and Arabic-speaking refugees one year after their resettlement. To better understand their transition, LEO researchers evaluated the survey results of those in the control group. After one year, two-thirds of refugees in the control group were employed—67% reported being happy with their job, while 43% reported being underemployed. The average monthly income of this subset of refugees was $900, and 1 in 5 reported a monthly income above $1,500. LEO researchers also learned that half of those in the control group had health insurance, and 45% participated actively in job training programs. With regards to internet access, 76% had obtained a smartphone and 61% had internet access in their own homes. By better understanding the challenges of integrating into a new life, researchers and social service agencies can improve their response to the needs of refugees—enabling them to reach their fullest potential. 

Where We’re Going

The Refugee Mobile study is the first attempt to explore the impact of smartphone ownership on a population with limited internet access in a developed country. Though this program was a pilot, its encouraging results warrant similar programs and further study. LEO researchers are specifically interested in testing the program’s effectiveness with a larger group of refugees who are being resettled in other U.S. states.

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