Refugees travel light; few carry anything but the essentials. Medication, a change of clothes, a toy for their children, phone and charger. Everything else is usually left behind. Birth certificates, diplomas and medical records often don’t make the cut – or get lost on the long, perilous journey to safety.
Accenture and Microsoft are addressing this issue by developing a digital ID network using biometric data, such as a fingerprint or iris scan, and blockchain technology to provide permanent legal identification to 1.1 billion people worldwide with no official documents. Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the project aims to help refugees prove their identity in order to gain access to basic services such as education and healthcare.
“Without an identity you can’t access education, financial services, healthcare, you name it. You are disenfranchised and marginalized from society,” David Treat, a managing director in Accenture’s financial services practice, told Reuters. “Having a digital identity is a basic human right.”
Though currently a prototype, this digital ID could revolutionize the way that refugees are processed within the complex international asylum system; blockchain technology is globally accessible, tamper-free and secure, meaning that user data is kept safe and private.
When developing applications or algorithms that are aimed at helping refugees, it is important to maintain a clear understanding of security and safety, experts agree. “Many refugees left their homes because their lives were in danger – if their location became known they could be targeted, or family members they left behind could be,” explains a 2016 ICT4Refugees report.
Chris Earney, Deputy, Innovation at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), emphasised the importance of privacy when working in the field at a recent panel at the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2017.
“While data empowers, data is also something that we need to guard and data is something that we need to respect. And when we think about individual identities, when we think about the most vulnerable populations and we think about leaving nobody behind, we must also make sure that we leave nobody exposed,” he said.
And this responsibility lands on everyone’s shoulders, notes the International Data Responsibility Group in its 2017 IDRG Annual Report.
“All actors in this digital ecosystem should be attuned to refugee privacy both from a regulatory perspective and a broader data perspective.” – 2017 IDRG Annual Report
For refugees, their mobile phones are more than a tool for everyday life, it is an essential access point to the outside world; a connection to home and a means to finding a new life.
According to the 2017 IDRG Annual Report, the mobile phone is the preferred source of information among refugee populations, more so than an aid worker or government sources.
“Access to information when you are without possessions or knowledge in a strange country is particularly important for this vulnerable group, such as access to maps, language apps, news and communication, such as WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook,” Rowan Farrell, co-founder of the Refugee Info Bus, told ITU News.
A wide variety of ICT start-ups and projects have been launched to help in the wake of the European refugee crisis – from welcome apps which aim to help refugees orient themselves in their new home countries, to coding classes that teach universal and transferable coding skills aimed to help refugees find work in a sector with a growing talent gap.
But as the number of refugees worldwide reaches a record 22.5 million people, it is important to understand that tech solutions are not a ‘silver bullet’ for this complex and growing crisis.
“ICT projects conceived and developed with little on-the-ground experience run the risk of misjudging the needs profile of their target group,” notes the ICT4Refugees report. As such, key considerations such as privacy and security, must be taken into account when working to help this vulnerable group.
By Lucy Spencer (@inquisitivelucy), ITU News