The refugee crisis is an identity crisis


In the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, all around the world millions of people have been displaced from their homes and the numbers keep on growing. Globally, according to UNHCR, one person in every 122 is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. Thousands of refugees have crossed the Aegean sea and on their quest, many have drowned or disappeared. Since the first refugees started arriving on the Greek islands, in 2015, the situation has gotten worse. In 2019 alone, 75,000 new arrivals reached the Greek shores and authorities predict that the crisis will even worse, as more refugees arrive every day by boat from Turkey, to join thousands of refugees who are already in the country. So far the Greek government has failed to effectively handle the problem. Can Blockchain help millions of refugees and the Greek government, by solving some of the most critical problems they face?

Ilias Louis Hatzis is the Founder at Mercato Blockchain Corporation AG and a weekly columnist at

Migration policy inevitably requires effective coordination at the local, national and international levels, as well as between governments, NGOs and the private sector players.

As the number of refugees continues to rise and even though an immediate resolution seems unlikely in the near future, it is crucial for governments, non-government organisations and the private sector to work together to find solutions. Blockchain technology can play a critical role in the refugee and migrant crisis, through the innovation and provision of tools and solutions to governments, private sector and other international organizations.

While blockchain cannot solve the root problems in the refugee crisis, it can improve living conditions. Blockchain could have a significant impact on refugees’ lives: identity tracking, resource allocation, healthcare, education, employment and social inclusion. It could provide transparency that can significantly improve the lives the refugees and help host countries effectively manage the migration process for refugees and asylum seekers.

Identity and borders
What do you do when a hungry and traumatized man that lost all his belongings tells you: He is Mohamed from Syria, 32 years old and has a computer science degree. He can’t prove any of that. Do you trust him? He could just as well be part of a terrorist organization. It’s not easy.

When refugees abandon their homes, most leave behind important documents such as birth certificates, marriage licences, passports and ID cards. While some refugees have scattered analog records or haphazard digital ones, 70% of refugees lack basic identification.

Building identities on the blockchain has a lot of value since it can be easily verified, cannot be falsified, are time-stamped, and public for everyone to see. Host governments could issue digitally-authenticated identification documents based on the blockchain, allowing refugees could use these documents to prove their identity and that of their families.

This could help with difficulties in tracking and sharing refugee migration data, since governments do not always know which country the refugee has entered before arriving in their jurisdiction. With the help of biometrics, governments can establish unique identities of asylum seekers and refugees, address the issue of lack of documentation for asylum seekers, and also allay security concerns by enabling identification and tracking of those inside the host countries’ borders.

Funding and humanitarian aid
According to the World Economic Forum and UNHCR, there are approximately 22.5 million refugees who are dependent on aid from international and non-government organizations. These organizations face many of their own challenges while distributing aid. Lack of transparency and accountability is a huge challenge when it comes to distributing vital resources.

Blockchain can help track where donations are going, track aid refugees have received, and give donors the transparency needed to make sure they are comfortable donating.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has directed resources to thousands of Syrian refugees in one of the largest-ever implementations of the Ethereum blockchain for a charitable cause. It gave refugees cryptocurrency-based vouchers that could be redeemed in participating markets, which sped up transactions while lowering the chance of fraud or data mismanagement.

Since 2016, the Finnish Immigration Service has been giving asylum seekers prepaid Mastercards instead of traditional cash disbursements, and today, the program has several thousand active cardholders. The card is linked to a unique digital identity stored on a blockchain. The system, developed by the Helsinki-based startup Moni, maintains a full analogue of a bank account for every one of its participants.

Integrating into society
Integrating back into society can be one of the most difficult things for refugees. Establishing digital identity is only a start. For thousands of refugees living in camps, access to education, jobs and financial support is an uphill struggle. They need to do simple things like all of us, open a bank account, build credit history, get a job and access their health records.

Integrating into the workforce and learning the local language is huge challenge. Most refugees are in the process of having their asylum applications assessed, years after arrival, they have limited access to work.

Storing financial and health records on blockchain, open new financial opportunities to people who don’t have access to modern financial services. Refugees can potentially use the blockchain to establish records of their educational and professional histories, which often get lost when they flee their countries. That’s why the United Nations is exploring using the technology.

Everyone has a personal identity. However, refugees who had to abandon their country, lost all connection with any physical evidence of their past and also lost their way of establishing a future. To participate in an economy, and resettle into society they must have a record of identity. Blockchain is an opportunity to protect the identity of refugees and provide ownership over credentials. The single most important thing that governments and organizations can do to protect refugees, is to begin issuing official records on blockchain and help their transition into becoming productive members of their new society.

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