For refugees fleeing from crisis, the battle doesn’t end upon being welcomed into a new country.
An official identity, despite being one of the most vital things to recover, can also be one of the most difficult things to gain access to.
As it stands, there are over 1.1 billion people worldwide who currently have no official documents.
Without legal proof of existence, everything from getting a job, to gaining access to a bank account, to finding somewhere to live, to accessing education, healthcare, and voting is nigh-on impossible.
As a result, these individuals are deprived of protection, access to services, and their basic rights. They remain invisible to the rest of the world and are prevented from advancing in society.
According to statistics released by the World Bank Group, it is predicted that a surplus of 2 billion people do not use formal financial services and that more than 50% of adults in the world’s poorest households are unbanked.
In 2013, the World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim announced that the Universal Financial Access Goal is that all adults who are currently not part of the traditional financial system will have access to a transaction account that will allow them to store, send and receive money by 2020.
Identity is a Fundamental Human Right
“Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” — Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights.
However, this goal faces many challenges.
For starters, it does not include the 200+ million migrants, the 21.3 million refugees, or the 10 million stateless persons around the world.
More often than not, these people have no formal identification, and no way to access the institutions that control it.
“Without an ID, we quickly become marginalized from modern life and the safety nets of society. Our existence is not accounted for, our needs are not met, we have no access to financial services or economic opportunities.”
Could Blockchain Technology Help Refugees to Find Their Feet?
Although it is most widely known for underpinning cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, blockchain technology has a wide range of applications.
In particular, the blockchain has many features that make it a suitable choice for record keeping. As a decentralized, distributed ledger, it does not rely on central authorities to verify its existence or facilitate transactions. This makes it highly secure and less vulnerable to tampering than centralized applications.
As a result, enthusiasts are increasingly pushing it forward as a solution to some of the biggest challenges we face as a society — in particular, as a solution to enhance the lives of people in vulnerable situations.
One of the key uses of blockchain technology is opening new financial avenues to those who don’t have the means to access modern financial services.
ID2020: A Global Identification System
ID2020 is a nonprofit public-private consortium.
The platform is part of a United Nations-supported project to provide legal identification to everyone who needs it.
“Having a digital identity is a basic human right.” — David Treat, Accenture Global Blockchain Lead.
The platform is comprised of a consortium of governments and organizations from both the public and private sector — including the likes of Microsoft, Accenture, and UNICC.
The ID2020 project focuses on four core identity principles:
- Personal: Unique to the user
- Persistent: Remains with the user from the start of life through to death
- Private: Only the user can grant permission to use the data
- Portable: Can be accessed by the user from any location
MONI: A Digital Money System
In Finland, the Finnish Immigration Service is offering refugees a prepaid Mastercard. It’s called MONI.
This innovation completely circumvents the requirement for a bank account, identity papers, and credit history. It allows users to receive money and pay bills without requiring a financial intermediary, such as a bank.
Instead, the Mastercard simply links to a unique digital identity on the blockchain, which keeps a record of the user’s financial transactions.
This means transactions between users are instantaneous, cheaper, and highly transparent.
Cardholders can even use their mobile phone to apply for a loan from friends or financial companies.
Users can select who they would be willing to loan money to, including a maximum amount they’d be willing to send. These loans will have no interest, and no additional fees.
Users can even choose to get their salary sent directly to their MONI account, enabling them to work even if they don’t have an official bank account set up.
Could a Digital Identity Program Do More Harm Than Good?
While there are undoubtedly many benefits of such a system, one vital question we need to ask ourselves are: what are the associated risks with this kind of technology?
One argument is that such a system could succeed in providing refugees with the same opportunities as locals in their area.
However, the reality of the situation is that many of the locals in these areas have very little opportunity to begin with.
Reports of refugees arriving in North America and European countries dominate headlines. However, the reality is that the vast majority of refugees — in fact, 90% of them — are being hosted by developing countries, which are facing serious socio-economic problems.
- 25% of the world’s refugee population live in Sub-Saharan Africa
- 80% of refugees in this region originate from one of the following countries: Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the Central African Republic
In addition, there is also a huge risk that implementing a digital identity system could be used to track a refugee’s movements, analyze their behaviors, and establish a data trail that could ultimately be used against them and leave them vulnerable to human rights abuse.
For example, the data collected from refugees could be used against them, or even to ensure they are kept in neighboring countries.
Such a situation could leave refugees even more vulnerable and dependent than before.
Similarly, there is a possibility that such solutions will not be accepted by refugees. It is very likely that many will feel strongly opposed to being tracked in this way and having all of their data available so freely.
More often than not, refugees are fleeing serious conflict, persecution, and brutal human rights abuses.
It’s not difficult to imagine the consequences should a database of extremely personal data fall into the wrong hands.
Blockchain is Not a ‘Magic Bullet’ — But It Can Help.
There is no doubt that some of the applications of blockchain technology have the ability to address many of the basic challenges being faced by refugees.
However, it is vital to understand that the refugee question is largely political, and that technological answers alone are highly unlikely to be sufficient.
Nonetheless, while it is by no means a complete solution, there is no doubt that implementation of such technology could certainly help to ‘level the playing field’ and put us yet another step closer to ending poverty.
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