World Refugee Day: How Digital Identities Can Help a Population in Crisis
According to statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are 25.4 million refugees in the world and some 3.1 million asylum seekers. On this year’s World Refugee Day, we’re reminded of the perpetual crises that plague our international communities and the displaced individuals they create.
For those in the blockchain industry, today may also serve as a reminder for how the new technology may provide a solution. With the ability to keep consistent, immutable tabs on digital identities, blockchain technology could rewrite how we record state-issued IDs in a digital age.
To Joseph Thompson, the co-founder of AID:Tech, a company using blockchain technology to “provide enterprise level solutions to international NGOs, governments and corporates to help them tackle some of [the] most entrenched issues in their fields,” refugees are in need of an identity solution.
“Refugees, especially those in protracted crises, are vulnerable, particularly when we look at the challenge of identity. Not only do refugees need to reformulate their personal identity to secure a sense of belonging, but also it’s imperative from a legal, social, and political perspective. Needless to say, the issue is more complex than simply assigning each individual an identity card, as global crises happening throughout the world are different and varied with refugees and their situations,” he said in a statement.
The UN, Thompson claims, “has highlighted identity within the Sustainable Development Goals with the World Bank introducing guiding principles on how identification systems should be designed.” These are “encouraging signs,” he believes, but says that there is still “significant progress to be made” to address issues surrounding identity for the vulnerable.
“An effective identity solution needs to be flexible, reliable and sustainable while also accommodating the transitional circumstances often faced by refugees. This is particularly crucial and alarming when we consider that refugee children are being born with the risk of missing out on legal identity — the foundation for access to formal services, including healthcare and education.”
These missing identities, especially for those children born in transitory states, could find legitimate identification on the blockchain. Blockchain-based identity verification would not only give refugees access to secure, verifiable identities, but could also be transferred anywhere. Unlike current digital identity protocols, those built on the blockchain are not tethered to a single program or system.
“Self Sovereign Identity, a key-based, on-chain decentralized digital identity, for example, can potentially help iron out the inefficiencies associated with the issuance of government paper-based IDs, allow people to reclaim control of their own information, and provide international protection for refugees and the ‘invisible population’ (the stateless or those who don’t have IDs),” the co-founder and chair of the Social Alpha Foundation, Nydia Zhang, believes.
The Social Alpha Foundation is a nonprofit, grant-making platform that funds blockchain startups focused on social betterment and humanitarian work. Digital identity solutions like Self Sovereign Identity could better serve the “invisible population” of refugees who don’t have the legal protections or formal guarantees that a verifiable identity entails.
Bruce Silcoff, CEO of the Shyft Network, believes that holding a verifiable identity “is a right, not a privilege.” He and the team at Shyft are building a blockchain-based identity platform to ensure that those with tenuous IDs have access to basic necessities, especially those who are at risk and fleeing conflict.
“We are evolving into a world where geography increasingly defines destiny, and that has to change. We are witnessing millions of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers crossing borders to escape violence and build better lives for themselves and their families, only to run into institutional barriers, unable to access basic services and participate in the global economy,” Silcoff stated.
Identity, Silcoff suggests, should be cross-border, uncoupled from the bureaucracy of centralized entities and approval processes. And for those who don’t have access to government-issued forms of ID, it should be accessible and transferrable all the same.
“[Shyft is] breaking down walls and silos to build bridges that transcend borders, and working with established and up-and-coming organizations to disrupt the way identity is assessed and managed. Given the extent of the global identity crisis, it has never been more important to work on solutions that will help build a more fair and inclusive future for everyone.”
These statements seem to implicity hone in on the humanitarian crises we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Middle East, and with good reason: the bulk of the world’s refugee population is escaping a tumult of terrorism, civil wars and government oppression in this area of the globe.
As the United States’ immigration woes continue to inflame political tensions, U.S. residents may view these comments in a more domestic context. As Latin American and Mexican immigrants flee conditions in their homelands, they are also greeted with a multitude of institutional barriers.
Blockchain-based identities could partly offer the U.S. a better management solution for the influx of refugees and immigrants, legal or otherwise, that have come to its border.