Blockchain Tech Can Help Refugees

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

June 13, 2016

The technology which powers Bitcoin, the blockchain, has long been coveted by many industries – most recently by the investment and banking community.  Now, this important technology may help solve the preeminent crises in the world – mass migration and terrorism.  The growth of the clandestine currency, Bitcoin, has been hampered by its lack of acceptance and familiarity. If the technology behind it,

If the technology behind it, blockchain, is adopted by countries that might receive migrants, it may smooth the way for their assimilation into their new societies. It may also have the positive effect of increasing the popularity, legitimacy, and ultimately, the value of Bitcoin.

Ignoring factors of pure racism and xenophobia, recoiling from the influx of migrants is also rooted in the fear of terrorist infiltration. Most migrants arrive on foreign soil anonymously, with few or no possessions – including ID. Those that do often have their government IDs confiscated and their financial information expunged. Not only does this pose problems for officials in the receiving countries, but it also makes assimilation by the refugee all but impossible, as they lack the documents to access the international banking system, and other government infrastructure such as the health system, or even relief organizations bent on helping them.

Many of these challenges can be overcome by blockchain technology, a common ledger that each party can view in the same way that multiple users can work on shared computer documents. This technology can screen a database to determine all sorts of information about things like personal identity, country of origin – even biometric information. The fact that it is tamper-proof obviates the worry that terrorists might be hijacking someone else’s identity for nefarious purposes. In fact, access to the banking system would not be as necessary, as blockchain could handle all manner of digital transactions. This would allow relief organizations to transfer money, food, shelter and clothing aid in the form of vouchers.

The solution is experiencing growing pains because it is one thing to be able to reference information via a blockchain, and an entirely different thing for those purveying the goods and services (namely merchants) to be willing to trust it and access that information. Bitnation is an initiative which allows countries to access an immigrant’s emergency ID,  and relatives back home to fund a Visa account for them. But its success has been hampered by merchants’ nonacceptance. A Spanish configuration of blockchain, NevTrace, has had better success of late. Though it’s still early days, there is reason to be optimistic. But, as always, the criminal element is not lurking too far away.

The blockchain solution is not fool-proof, in that If someone with a convincing fake ID went to a bank that shared the blockchain ledger, that fake ID would spread through the system.  And without third-party verification, typical “know your customer” rules and practices won’t be very effective. Still, blockchain, because it is tamper-proof, does hold promise for verifying identities and smoothing the road for refugees (if not hastening their acceptance!).

It is also good for the migrant, because it is anonymous, which allows a person to divulge only as much information about themselves as is necessary. Unfortunately, no technology has yet been devised to counteract the human psyche – the aforementioned xenophobia- not to mention fear or outright racism which pervades society. But it is at least encouraging that, if prejudices can be overcome, a potential solution exists with blockchain. If you are a hoarder of Bitcoins, it might provide you with a reason for optimism for the electronic currency… as long as you’re patient.

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