By Serena Chaudhry
LONDON, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For millions of refugees living in makeshift camps, access to education, jobs and financial support is an uphill struggle. Developers of a new blockchain platform are hoping to change that.
The startup ExsulCoin aims to help refugees build digital identities by using blockchain technology to establish records of their educational and professional histories, making it easier for employers to screen and hire them.
The blockchain-based platform also includes apps for education and vocational training.
"The biggest problem for refugees is education," said Chief executive and founder James Song. "And even if it's not basic education, it would be integrated-related education."
Song said training can give refugees in camps job skills to help them make a living, while apps can also provide those who are resettled with information - on laws, for example - to help them integrate into their new surroundings.
ExsulCoin tested an app last year with 10 women in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, which houses many of the over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar.
The women completed a business training module through the education app, learning how to make bracelets with Myanmar jade and market them using social media.
The plan is to sell the bracelets commercially, Song said, after scaling up production and teaching other women the skills. ExsulCoin will assist in shipping the product, he added.
Other education apps include English Fundamentals for Rohingya Speakers, Budgeting Basics and Food Safety.
POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS
ExsulCoin is one of a growing number of firms and agencies looking to provide services to refugees by using blockchain, which provides a transparent record-keeping platform.
The World Food Programme launched a blockchain-based system last May in Jordan's Azraq camp, where thousands of refugees pay for food with eye scans.
Iris-recognition devices authenticate customers' identities and deduct what they spend from money they received as aid. The success of the project has prompted the United Nations agency to look at expanding the scheme.
Such initiatives have stirred debate in the charity sector about the benefits of using blockchain to distribute aid, particularly as a way to avoid mismanagement of funds.
By recording and keeping a shared digital record of transactions without any middlemen, blockchain has become a key technology in both the public and private sectors.
However, experts say a lot work needs to be done to make it truly beneficial to refugees.
Some point out that refugees would need to have access to smartphones, the internet, sufficient data. Verifying the identities of many can also be difficult, especially if they have fled their homes without documents.
"Blockchain is very much a part of the solution. It's not a silver bullet, it's not going to go out and solve the refugee crisis on it's own," said Ben Siegel of ConsenSys, a U.S. firm that develops the blockchain system ethereum.
While acknowledging the challenges, Song said he believes the potential to use blockchain to help educate and empower refugees is enormous.
"A lot of the world's children don't have access to high quality education, and we can serve them and we can invest in projects that they end up doing," Song told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said he expects the use of blockchain technologies to keep increasing in the aid sector, and he predicted that ExsulCoin would be worth $5 billion to $6 billion within five years.
(Reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)
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