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Meet the entrepreneurs using fintech to help refugees

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 July 2020 09:38 GMT

Lucia Gallardo, CEO of Emerge, in Tijuana, Mexico in 2018. Photo provided by Lucia Gallardo

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A generation of refugees have set up financial technology firms to help other refugees and migrants send money, access paperwork and share information

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, July 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Berat Kjamili has vivid memories of queuing for days outside a government building in Turkey for papers that would allow him - an 18-year-old refugee from North Macedonia - to legally reside and study in the country.

"There were 1,000 people there and I couldn't get in. The next day I went at 6 a.m. and still I couldn't get my papers. The third day, I slept on the street that night (to beat the queue)," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The experience led him to build a website where refugees can apply for residency permits. It is now operated by the Turkish government.

Kjamili, 27, is part of a generation of refugees who have set up fintech firms to help other refugees and migrants send money, access paperwork and share information about housing and jobs.

Often working in shops, cafes and factories, refugees have been harder hit by coronavirus-triggered job cuts than citizens in their host countries, U.S. development groups said on Wednesday.

Businesses like Kjamili's could play a key role in helping refugees to integrate amid a global pandemic that, according to the United Nations, has increased xenophobia and led to a surge in evictions.


Among the world's 30 million refugees and asylum seekers are many who lack bank accounts and have only intermittent access to Internet and mobile phones.

More than 1 billion people worldwide lack government-issued credentials to prove their identity, which can result in "social, economic, and political exclusion", UNHCR said in a recent report. 

Refugees given ID cards by the United Nations on arrival in a new country have limited ways to partake in the economy, said Hanna Mattinen, a senior officer in the agency's cash aid team.

"In the vast majority of cases, with this ID… they can't open bank account, they don't have access to SIM cards," she said.

As businesses go cashless and require card payments - a drive hastened by COVID-19 - refugees and migrants could be left "locked out of the system", said Marta Zaccagnini, Program Manager Europe for Village Capital, an organisation supporting impact-driven start-ups.


Roham Soleimani, an Iranian refugee in Berlin, is hoping his company BankeNu - Nu means new in Persian - could help. The 28-year-old is working on a blockchain-based service that would allow people to transfer money from anywhere.  

"It's a big opportunity to help people like us. To give opportunity to people who suffer sanctions, the un-banked, the migrant communities… and offer the services with low fees," he said.  

Soleimani set up a marketing agency that helped secure European wages for Iranian freelance designers back home.

Roham Soleimani, an Iranian refugee in Berlin and co-founder and CEO of BankeNu, a blockchain-based remittance service. Photo provided by Roham Soleiman

When the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran it became impossible for him to pay his freelancers via traditional banks and he was forced to close the agency.

While trying to find a way to resolve this, he discovered that many displaced people around the world face the same problem.

So Soleimani started working on BankeNu to allow secure online transfers at a cheaper rate than traditional remittance services as a side project while holding a full-time job as a project manager for an e-commerce company.

Balancing the two often means forgoing leisure time and activities like going out for meals with his wife, he said. 

"It's not easy for my wife to have me with such a full schedule. But I do it because I love it and I hope it would work for everybody."


Thirty-year-old Honduran Lucia Gallardo is another entrepreneur whose platform, Homeward, incorporates blockchain technology to provide refugees and migrants with digital IDs and help them resettle based on their skills and employability potential. 

Often, refugees are seen as a burden so countries are praised for being generous for accepting them, when in fact they have much to contribute, particularly in places with aging populations that need young workers, said Gallardo. 

Countries have been slashing quotas for asylum seekers while the population of displaced people is growing, making it harder than ever for refugees to get official recognition, she said.

So by helping some refugees qualify for immigration schemes that focus on skills and jobs, her company, Emerge is reducing the increasingly long queue for refugees, she added.  

She plans to pilot the programme on migrants, political asylum seekers and homeless populations in 2021. Cities in U.S., Canada and Europe have shown interest, more so than national governments, she said. 

Gallardo, who studied in Canada, said she chose to go abroad but still found it hard to leave her home and family. 

So people displaced by violent conflict would find it much more difficult to navigate a completely new environment and lifestyle yet the burden of integration falls on them, she said. 

By providing a solution that includes linking them up with private and public sector partners such as banks and employment agencies, she said she hopes to alleviate these challenges. 

Berat Kjamili, co-founder of mobile phone application for refugees and migrants MigPort. Photo provided by Berat Kjamili. Credit:- Miholyn Soon – Collective Global Accelerator London, The Collective Foundation.


Such initiatives are "very encouraging" but poor infrastructure and instability in many developing countries, where 85% of today's refugees are residing, is a barrier, said Annika Sjoberg, another officer from the UNHCR, adding the agency provides cash aid in many of these places.

Still, UNHCR has successfully negotiated with financial service providers, Central Banks and other regulators, to allow refugees and asylum seekers to have bank and mobile money accounts in countries such as Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda and Jordan, she said.

Kjamili, meanwhile, is looking to expand the use of a mobile app, MigPort, he built that 15,000 refugees in Turkey are currently using to exchange information with each other and ask questions to locals on jobs, education and financial hurdles.

Born a year after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Kjamili said he grew up surrounded by conflict. As a Turkish Albanian he also felt he did not belong in the Balkan nation.   

"But interestingly enough when I come to Turkey I realised I'm a foreigner. Having Turkish (ethnicity) didn't give me any rights and I realised that wherever I go, I will be always a migrant, a refugee, an expat," he said.

So he feels a kinship with others who left their homes, whether by choice or force.

"I was lucky. I wanted to do something to empower their voices and the best way is with technology."   

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(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Tom Finn (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)