At the end of World War I, a vast sea of migrants uprooted by the hostilities, the breakup of empires and the collapse of regimes, flooded the European continent. Displaced Russians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, to name only a few, were scattered in various parts of Europe and left stranded. As the international community struggled to assist these people, a common element plagued the efforts: identity. How were government representatives to establish and verify the identity of the migrants? As has been pointed out elsewhere, “An identity is essential for nearly everything needed in a crisis – securing shelter, accessing services, crossing borders, and receiving funds. These are challenging enough when you’re distressed by displacement; they’re exponentially so when you don’t have an identity.”
According to Michael Barutciski, a professor at Glendon College, at York University and an expert on refugee matters, “The international community, and in particular the nation states that have been saddled with the responsibility of looking after migrants, have faced this problem from the end of World War I even until today.” Today, many forcibly displaced persons are among the one billion people around the world who lack any form of government recognized ID. The UNCHR and the World Bank are leading the effort to establish a means of providing these lost souls with a means of establishing a verifiable identity. This is one of the central messages contained in the 10 Principles on ID for Sustainable Development that both organizations have endorsed, along with over 20 other international, philanthropic, academic, and private sector organizations.
A new initiative in this area is to use the blockchain to help refugees build their identities. Refugees entering a UNCHR camp, for example, are issued documentation but that documentation isn’t well tracked after leaving the camp. Adding this information to a blockchain would help to create a record, proving the refugee’s identity as they move from one place to another even if they relocate to a new country. The need for better data collection and analysis are key features of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which is scheduled to be approved in an international conference to be convened in Morroco on December 10th, 2018 and the Global Compact on Refugees which was approved by the U.N. by 176 states with the exception of the U.S. on November 13th, 2018.
According to UNICEF, “While there are ongoing efforts to strengthen data collection and analysis at both the global and country levels, far more needs to be done. As Member States work towards finalizing these two agreements, the five agencies and partners urge them to address the evidence gaps and include the rights, protection and wellbeing of children as central commitments in the final texts. If these gaps are not addressed, it will be impossible to implement and monitor the Compacts and the impact they could have for children on the move.”
Recently I spoke with Bob Reid and Brad Wittemen, cofounders of Everest, the world’s only device-free globally accessible, digital transaction protocol with built-in identity. Everest claims that through the use of its digital identities, electronic wallets, document management, and biometrics, users will be able to digitally verify their identity for public services and claim their social and economic rights. Essentially, Everest uses blockchain technology to help establish a legitimate identity and create a digital wallet, or more understandably, kind of like a digital bank account. Everest’s technology can thus be used as a means to verify identity, prevent human trafficking, store medical records and keep refugees in contact with other family members. The digital wallet Everest creates per user is essentially like a digital bank account, which can store vouchers that serve to provide food and other necessities as well as help provide access financial services.
The way the program works is that the Everest team meets with refugees to collect and scan whatever identity papers they have, such as a birth certificate or baptismal papers and couples them with a biometric scan for facial recognition and finger printing. Everest then links this digital package thus created to the blockchain. For those not yet familiar with the blockchain, it is a growing chain of data, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography, that is to say, a secure digital tool that prevents third parties or the public in general from changing what has been saved on the blockchain. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, that is to say, a timestamp and transaction data record that are sealed in the chain of blocks so built. By design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data and thus helps to secure the identity data.
To recap in visual shorthand for the sake of understanding:
Everest + Person – any identity papers + biometric scan – create a digital identity package – link to blockchain.
The blockchain identity entry + Everest – create a digital wallet (think like a digital bank account).
Person now has: verifiable identity + digital wallet = access to goods and services.
Everest is currently working with the government of Indonesia to demonstrate the effectiveness of its service by providing Indonesian households with liquefied propane gas as cooking fuel. That program could scale to serve over 40 million households across the country. What may be unique about the Everest effort, however, is its sustainability feature. Everest proposes to create wallets that when used, divides a portion of the funds distributed through this technology and allocates that amount to cover the costs of sustaining the program. In that regard a non profit NGO, The Identity Network Foundation, created by Everest, will administer and service that aspect of Everest’s work.
It may be that through the work of the international community, with efforts like those being made by Everest, the problem of identity for refugees may soon be solved.