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Essay: A path to self-sovereign identity, data control, and privacy in displacement camps

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This essay by student Eden Tadesse (MPP 2025) won 1st place in the Hertie School 20 Years essay competition. Read more about the essay competition here

Views expressed by the author may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.

A path to self-sovereign identity, data control, and privacy in displacement camps: An essay on empowering refugees through blockchain

An essay by Eden Tadesse 

Introduction

 

Globally, more than 100 million people have been displaced worldwide. The global refugee crisis has propelled host governments and international agencies such as UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) into a complex struggle of managing the influx of refugees and effectively documenting their identities. As refugee settlements evolve into technologically driven hubs, exemplified by the sprawling Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and the vast Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, the potential of blockchain technology to empower these displaced populations emerges as a viable policy solution.

 

The advent of blockchain technology has garnered widespread attention for its potential to revolutionize various industries. As a cybersecurity undergrad, I first became intellectually interested in blockchain while studying cryptographic technologies and their applications within African-based financial institutions. I was fascinated by the concept of decentralization, where data isn't controlled by a single entity but is distributed across a network, and how this decentralized nature can empower individuals, especially those from ethnic minorities like me who are often overlooked or disregarded by governmental policies. In 2017, I took a gap year from university to live in a refugee camp at the height of Africa’s worst displacement crisis. This incredible experience taught me many things, particularly how emerging technologies such as blockchain can be leveraged to uplift marginalized communities and provide a safer route to self-reliance.

 

The utilization of blockchain in displacement contexts provides self-sovereign identity, data control, and privacy, thereby enhancing financial inclusivity, streamlining aid distribution, and facilitating the integration of refugees into the digital economy. However, the continued success and widespread adoption of blockchain hinge on prioritizing transparency and decentralization. This essay delves into the potential of blockchain to empower refugees, enabling them to reclaim agency over their identities and data, thereby fostering autonomy, dignity, and empowerment for refugees.

Self-sovereign identity and data control

In these large settlements, refugees encounter multifaceted challenges, from the cumbersome settlement of payments without access to cash or credit cards to the pervasive fear of sharing personal information with camp managers, dreading potential data leaks to government authorities in their countries of origin. These prevalent concerns, often compounded by bureaucratic hurdles in validating their identities, stands as a challenging barrier to accessing vital resources and services. Blockchain technology offers a solution through the provision of self-sovereign identity. With blockchain-powered identity solutions, refugees gain autonomy over their personal information, obviating the need for centralized authorities. This not only safeguards privacy but also mitigates the risks associated with identity theft and fraud. Furthermore, refugees can securely store and share their data with trusted entities, such as aid organizations and government agencies, facilitating seamless access to critical services.

 

This is already being implemented in practice. For example, in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, the United Nations is utilizing a blockchain program for refugees by scanning their irises and having them confirm their identities on a UN database. This system allows the storage of personal data on a blockchain. Refugees are then equipped with portable digital wallets, allowing them to access financial services and prove their identities more easily, ultimately facilitating their integration into societies where IDs and bank accounts are essential.

Financial inclusion and cashless transactions 

 

Displacement camps often render traditional banking systems inaccessible to refugees for several years after arriving in a refugee camp. For the vast majority of refugees living in camps, access to finance occurs through two primary methods: direct cash transfers from organizations like UNHCR or other international donors, or receiving cash via Western Union, often sent by family members residing abroad. While these methods contribute to the host country's economy by providing inflows of foreign currency, they present inconveniences and bureaucratic hurdles for refugees. Blockchain technology bridges this gap by enabling financial inclusion through digital currencies and cashless transactions. Blockchain-based payment systems empower refugees to settle bills and conduct transactions without the requirement for cash or credit cards. This not only diminishes the susceptibility to theft but also ensures transparent and traceable financial records, thereby bolstering accountability and curbing corruption.

 

Embracing blockchain-based financial solutions enables refugees to actively participate in the local economy, advancing economic stability and empowerment. For example, Finland has been pioneering a blockchain technology via the Migri-MONI partnership, providing refugees with digital identities linked to prepaid Mastercards, enabling financial transactions and empowerment, while addressing privacy concerns and offering a potential solution for other host nations facing similar challenges.

Data security and privacy

 

Given the vulnerability of marginalized populations like refugees, data security and privacy have paramount significance. Conventional systems reliant on paperwork and centralized databases are prone to breaches and unauthorized access. Blockchain technology combats data centralization by dispersing data across a network of computers, ensuring heightened security and privacy. The assurance that personal information is safeguarded from tampering instills confidence among refugees. Therefore, this not only secures their identities but also fosters trust in the systems managing their data, ultimately cultivating a sense of security and stability.

 

During my visit to Kakuma Refugee Camp last year, I spoke with several Ethiopian political refugees about data protection and privacy. They expressed reluctance to share personal details such as their birthplace, full name, sexual orientation, and occupation with camp authorities. They were “certain” that this information was being shared with their respective home governments. Also, they voiced concerns regarding the handling of essential paperwork by existing NGOs and camp administrators, citing concerns about privacy infringement coupled with instances of theft within the camp. Among those I spoke with, political and LGBTQI+ refugees were intensely anxious about potential data leaks over other concerns.

 

Streamlining information transfer and distribution 

The challenging hurdles faced by camp managers in swiftly and securely transferring critical refugee information between camps can find resolution through blockchain. Efficient communication and coordination among camp administrators, aid organizations, and refugees constitute fundamental elements for effective service delivery in displacement camps. Blockchain technology streamlines information transfer by securing a decentralized and transparent platform for data exchange. Real-time updates, including medical records, educational credentials, and employment history, find secure storage on the blockchain, mitigating bureaucratic hurdles and expediting decision-making processes. Additionally, aid distribution can undergo simplification through transparent and automated procedures. For example, several UN agencies (UNDP, WFP, etc.) are already using blockchain-based smart contracts in humanitarian contexts to ensure targeted aid delivery, curtailing corruption and ensuring equitable distribution.

Participation in the digital economy

Amidst the rapid digital transformation shaping our societies, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) should not be left out. Blockchain opens doors for these marginalized communities to participate in the digital revolution. It is not a question of whether this process can work; it has proven successful in various contexts. However, to ensure its longevity and effectiveness, a paradigm shift towards increased transparency and decentralization within the system is imperative.

 

The concept of “self-sovereign identity,” an underpinning principle of blockchain, liberates refugees from dependence on central authorities, guaranteeing security and privacy. Utilizing blockchain-enabled digital ID cards, refugees can gain access to a plethora of opportunities previously out of reach: opening bank accounts using their official digital IDs, conducting secure transactions, and collating their essential documents online. Furthermore, it enables refugees to gain entry to online marketplaces, freelance platforms, and assorted digital avenues, enabling them to generate income and attain self-reliance.

 

Conclusion 

 

The adoption of blockchain facilitates refugees' reclamation of control over their identities and data, increasing self-determination, dignity, and empowerment amidst displacement. Moreover, blockchain serves as a catalyst for enhancing financial inclusion, streamlining aid distribution, and facilitating refugees' integration into the local and digital economy. This not only strengthens their digital literacy and financial well-being but also equips them with skills and resources to rebuild their lives and contribute meaningfully to society.

 

My message to government officials in host countries, particularly those hosting millions of refugees, is to embrace blockchain-based financial solutions to empower refugees, strengthen governance, and stimulate inclusive economic growth as a whole. To address the regulatory changes needed to adopt such a technology, a collaborative effort between host governments and relevant stakeholders is much needed. This can lead to adaptive measures that accommodate this innovation within existing frameworks. Moreover, through transparent communication and strategic partnerships with financial institutions, any disruption to established systems can be minimized, ensuring a smooth transition. Your support in championing this cause will pave the way for a more resilient society.

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