Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Forced to Flee: How is Blockchain Technology Transforming the Lives of Refugees in Crisis?

Friday, 20 July 2018 14:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution

One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

According to the UNHCR, as of today, there are over 68 million people displaced, over 25 million of whom are refugees — people who have been forced to flee home, and sometimes their country, as a result of war, violence or persecution.

The refugee crisis has almost always been a topic high on the humanitarian and development agenda, especially in the context of how support can best be provided in the short and medium term in a decent and dignified manner. 

Ensuring refugees access to critical services is key. But how can accessibility be improved, especially in the areas of healthcare, education and financing? When forcibly displaced from their homes, many refugees lose exactly this access to vital, everyday support.

As they cross borders into new jurisdictions without formal identification, the lack of legal identity results in millions of refugees being denied or delayed from accessing services that many of us in the developed world often take for granted. However, leveraging blockchain technology to deliver digital identities can deliver the much-needed solution to the refugee identification crisis.

Blockchain For Good

Blockchain can be thought of as an incorruptible ledger that stores transactions which are replicated across multiple computers on a decentralized network (this could be hundreds, thousands or even millions of computers). Each computer plays a role in making the ledger tamper-proof, thus increasing the strength of the network. This digital ledger maintains security and traceability, while cutting out unnecessary intermediaries.

Organisations working hard to improve the lives of refugees can utilise blockchain-enabled digital identity solutions as a means of understanding how resources are distributed, as well as to cut down on identity fraud and data mismanagement, while allowing organisations to reduce their burden around costs and resources.

Digital identities function as the basis for refugees accessing entitlements such as aid, welfare, remittances, donations, and healthcare. With every activity immutably recorded, a blockchain solution provides transparency and traceability to the process of recordkeeping. As data builds on the blockchain, information accumulates and the technology effectively provides a de facto foundation where information can be structured, reviewed and utilised. When refugees use their digital identity to receive aid and support, they are also capturing data of their activities — building a social and economic history.

Possibilities Beyond the Crisis

Blockchain aids in the resettlement of refugees, providing greater security and transparency in the immigration process, and allowing them to focus on life after conflict. With a permanent, cross-border identity record, blockchain can be used for work permits and asylum application processing. The technology could also greatly increase a refugee’s ability to work and give them the ability to legally access basic services, including banking, healthcare and welfare.

Blockchain ensures a refugee’s identity is not stolen, forged or duplicated by hosting their personal information on a decentralized ecosystem. Stored on “blocks” that are continuously verified and secured through cryptography, blockchain is critical in protecting a refugee’s data from being exploited. The documentation of these refugees could make a huge difference to their lives especially as it might alter the public’s perception of them.

While no technology should be considered a silver bullet that solves all ailments, there is little doubt that blockchain has the capacity to affect significant, positive change for the future of refugees and humanity. Blockchain will not only emerge as the integral infrastructure capable of revolutionising assistance during a refugee crisis, but also as the mechanism that has the potential to eradicate it.

Joseph Thompson is the CEO and Co-Founder of AID:Tech, the world’s first company ever to deliver international aid using blockchain technology.