An interesting use of blockchain technology during the past few years has been aimed at improving the lives of refugees. This report will explore the variety of ways that agencies are effectively using blockchain.
Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have been able to benefit from the $1.4 million in food vouchers from the World Food Programme (WFP), an agency of the United Nations. The project has been named Building Blocks and is currently expanding under their WFP executive director — Houman Haddad. The long-term goal is to be able to deliver ten times that amount of food in daily transactions – over 1 million transactions per day.
The Syrian refugees within the camps in Jordan received vouchers to do their shopping. When they reach the cash register to check out, their identity is verified with an eye scan that ensures that they are in the database of those who are authorised to receive aid. A blockchain ledger records all the transactions.
Built on the Ethereum blockchain, Haddad’s WFP project is encouraging donors and developers to join them and to help expand this worthy project. (QZ, Nov. 2017)
A slightly different approach is being taken in Finland. For asylum seekers now living within the country, assistance to regain financial status through officially recognised identity documents is, in part, provided by the Finnish Immigration Service. Instead of payments to the refugees and asylum seekers being made in cash, the government has issued pre-paid credit cards called MONI — cards that also contain embedded digital identity. MONI operates as a bank account and enables the asylum seekers to obtain employment and then be paid directly into their account for their hours of work. Also, all transactions are easily verified by the immigration authorities if they find it necessary to track the movements and spending patterns of any of the people who use these cards.
The cryptographic ledger of the blockchain is part of a growing movement by relief agencies and charities to create a secure means of identity – creating documents that cannot be lost or stolen during episodes such as mass migration or acts of war. The records are also made safer by the nature of their storage – sprinkled on a global network of computers that is, by design, decentralised instead of concentrated in one less-secure central location. (Technology Review, Sept. 2017)
The United Nations has declared that the ability to have a verifiable digital identity is now considered to be a basic human right. Towards that end, a blockchain-based digital identity network is being built in a partnership between Accenture and Microsoft. There are currently 1.1 billion people in the world who have no access to any proven form of identity – proof that is essential for accessing banking, education, and social assistance.
The construction of this digital identity database will be especially critical for the increasing number of refugees who have no way to prove their dates and places of birth, health statuses, and educational levels when paper documents have been destroyed or lost as they migrated to another country. (Reuters, June 2017)
A large percentage of the over-1-million refugees who arrived in Europe during the last two years chose to not declare their identities at the borders of the first-landing country and instead they headed straight to places like the Scandinavian countries or Germany. This is most likely due to the perception that their welcome would be warmer and the benefits on offer would be more comprehensive in those places.
The issue with that approach has been the requirements, especially in well-ordered countries like Germany, for proof of identity and proof of educational credentials. Attempts have been made by various agencies to provide a type of blockchain-recorded CV that would, for example, back up a refugee’s claim of having a degree in a particular area of expertise or years of experience doing a particular job. This has proven to be more difficult than anticipated since anecdotal reports from refugee camps in Turkey have noted that quite often the descriptions of the course material or degree have been far too vague to offer any sort of reconstruction of previously attained credentials.
Bitnation has proposed a peer-to-peer version of verification where family members, friends, and former professors or employers could give statements that back up the claims of degrees, identity, or employment experience. However, it is clear that this method could easily be exploited if the ‘verifiers’ simply took payments to make statements that were not truthful and help refugees obtain false identities based on a thread of lies.
The situation is challenging, but the proposed set-up of a database of rigorously background-checked identities, such as the upcoming network from Accenture and Microsoft, may be an essential step forward. (Hear Alliance, n.d.)
Further information, directly from the Bitnation site, makes it clear that their Blockchain Emergency ID (BE-ID) is meant to be an immediate but temporary solution. Their website contains a one-page form where a refugee’s details can be filled in. The family name, date of birth, and height are entered along with the names of anyone who can verify who the refugee is. This trust-based network system is meant to provide a temporary ID and once the form is complete, it is logged online and a QR code (Quick Response code – a 2-dimensional barcode that can be scanned) is generated. That QR code can then be copied into the mobile phone of the refugee. (Bitnation, n.d.)
A proposal was made during United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sessions in late 2017 to create a ‘package’ for refugees. In addition to the tangible need for food, clothing, housing, and medical care, the participants acknowledged the need to remember that the refugees and migrants that they were discussing also had complex emotional issues. Beyond simply losing their familiar home and neighbourhood, they are also losing a sense of national identity, the ease with which they formerly moved through the world, their standing in the community. Now, they have to face long lines simply to apply for the essentials of life, and job application rejections if they are unable to prove who they were, where they had worked or how they had been educated. The disheartening aspects of being a refugee or migrant also includes how family members do not always agree on the approach that they wish to take as they settle into a new life in a new country.
The proposal that arose from these UNDP brain-storming sessions was the creation of a token-based economy with the following characteristics.
- All those who were over the age of 16 can register and be given a monthly allowance of tokens.
- Tokens will be uploaded into their mobile phones.
- Tokens can be used for food, clothing, education, and healthcare.
- Tokens can be traded depending on what the particular person needed or wanted. (United Nations Development Programme, Nov. 2017)
- Wong, Joon Ian (2017, Nov. 3). The UN is using ethereum’s technology to fund food for thousands of refugees. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1118743/world-food-programmes-ethereum-based-blockchain-for-syrian-refugees-in-jordan/
- Orcutt, Mike(2017, Sept. 5). How Blockchain is Kickstarting The Financial Lives Of Refugees. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608764/how-blockchain-is-kickstarting-the-financial-lives-of-refugees/
- Irrera, Anna (2017, June 19). Accenture-Microsoft Team Up On Blockchain-Based Digital ID Network. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-microsoft-accenture-digitalid/accenture-microsoft-team-up-on-blockchain-based-digital-id-network-idUSKBN19A22B
- Stein, Adrian (n.d.). How Blockchain technology can help refugees – from proving identity to college entry. Retrieved from http://hearalliance.org/blog/how-blockchain-technology-can-help-refugees-proving-identity-college-entry
- Bitnation Emergency Refugee Response: Blockchain Emergency ID. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://refugees.bitnation.co/blockchain-emergency-id-be-id/
- Mikulova, Kristina (2017, Nov. 3). Can blockchain help us better assist refugees and migrants in transit? Retrieved from http://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/rbec/en/home/blog/2017/11/3/Can-blockchain-help-us-better-assist-refugees-and-migrants-in-transit-.html