Technology Solutions for Refugees


SEATTLE, Washington — As conflicts around the globe continue to flare up, 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and ten million people are stateless. Without recognized national citizenship, refugees lack the legitimacy of the financial, education and employment records that follow people within their country. There are organizations currently working to develop important technology solutions for refugees.

Barriers to Integration

As a consequence of statelessness, refugees are often denied the ability to open bank accounts, gain employment, attend schools, find housing, get legal advice or gain other benefits afforded to citizens. Perhaps most painfully, refugees frequently lose track of family and friends in transitions. Without a human network, refugees are even more vulnerable. Lack of important skills is also a significant barrier for refugees. UNHCR staff members say that low levels of literacy are the second-greatest connectivity barrier for refugees.

UNHCR recommends that refugees have affordable, reliable networks based on mobile broadband and invites private partners to deliver services in local languages. Unfortunately, 40 percent of all refugees live in rural locations where internet access is already lower. In these places, only 17 percent have access to mobile networks with 3G speeds or better. Not to mention that electricity is not consistent or guaranteed in rural areas and refugee camps. Furthermore, women have greater barriers due to sexism. For example, in Rwanda, some husbands reported fearing infidelity if their wives had phones. Among Jordon refugees, men mostly manage one family phone.,

Technological Needs

The U.N. is pursuing answers to problems faced by refugees by focusing in part on the technological needs of refugees and laying out goals. Their 2016 publication, “Connecting Refugees,” assessed the state of connectivity and unmet potential of emerging technologies. Since then, through international government efforts, NGO’s, corporations and contests, innovators are applying AI and blockchain strategies to the needs of refugees to improve efficacy at meeting urgent, logistical needs.

The technological barriers are numerous. Regardless of the fact that the world is saturated with mobile phone access, refugees still have enormous difficulties getting reliably connected to Internet resources. Many have older phones with limited access to the Internet. Repairs are costly and harder to get on older phones. The World Bank reports that two billion people do not have bank accounts, although mobile banking rates are improving.

Blockchain Technology

Even with these significant challenges in mind, the list of innovations to provide technology solutions for refugees is exploding. Organizations are working to identify the key needs of refugees and support efforts that address them, especially with blockchain-based technologies. Blockchain, the foundation of Bitcoin, is showing promise by offering a decentralized authority for establishing identity and providing opportunities for work and learning. Blockchain provides an encrypted system that ensures more financial safety. It also gives refugees more legitimacy.

Blockchain gives people a chance to move beyond their country of citizenship as the only proxy for identity validation to something more portable. This is what is behind the World Bank and “UNHCR’s Principals on Identification for Sustainable Development: Toward the Digital Age.” Since 1.5 people lack proof of identity, the need for legitimacy is great. Homeward is an example of a portable identity that compiles physical and behavioral biometric data, CV/resume data, socio-cultural preferences and a blockchain-enabled public key infrastructure to form a unique, self-managed digital ID.

Technology Interventions for Refugees

The 500 participants at the 2015 Techrefugees Summit were tasked with using AI, blockchain and other Internet technologies for its main five focus areas: access to rights and information, health, education, employment and social inclusion. Winning websites and technologies included refugee-specific social networks, legal advice sites, access to doctors and accurate and mobile medical records, video instruction, journalism skills education and virtual ways of making money.

One notable innovation was the Digital Backpack, which helps refugees carry CV/resume information across country boundaries and can even store a non-formal learning history. The Digital Backpack focuses on four key functions: creating badges and verifying skills, requesting and sending references, skills matching and skills assessment.

Development of AI and blockchain is still young; however, the opportunities to address the challenges of the refugee crisis are vast. These organizations are coming up with important technology solutions for refugees to lessen their burden and help integrate them into society.

Heather Hughes

Photo: Flickr


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