Rohingya refugees are turning to blockchain technology to address one of their most existential threats: lack of officially recognized identity.
The Muslim minority has been the target of the Muslim minority denied for decades to the citizenship of Myanmar. a brutal campaign of violence by the army that culminated a year ago this week. A "reclamation operation" led by Buddhist militias sent over 700,000 Rohingyas pouring over the border into Bangladesh, without passports or official documents
The Myanmar government has therefore agreed to bring back the Rohingyas, but they refuse to grant them citizenship. Many Rohingya do not want to come back and face life without a home or an identity. This growing crisis has prompted Muhammad Noor and his team to the Rohingya Project to try to find a digital solution.
"Because a centralized entity like a bank or government has my identity," says Noor, a Rohingya community leader based in Kuala Lumpur. Lumpur. "Who am I to say if I am who I am?"
Using blockchain-based technology, Noor is experimenting with the use of digital identity cards that aim to help Rohingya in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia to access services such as banking and education. The hope is that successful trials can lead to a system that can help the community throughout Southeast Asia.
Under the scheme, a blockchain database is used to record individual digital IDs, which can be issued to people once they have made a test to verify that they are genuine Rohingya.
The goal of Noor is to give Rohingya the power to claim their identities with a resilient system that their host countries will recognize, allowing them access to social programs, legal rights, education and assistance health. At this stage, the Rohingya Project's main objective is to tackle the most important problem facing stateless peoples: financial exclusion.
Noor's team is part of a group of refugees and stateless people around the world who are taking advantage of the power of blockchain technology to claim their identities.
The concept of blockchain comes from the bitcoin digital currency, which tracks the movement of money around its ecosystem by grouping transactions into 10-minute blocks, each of which is inextricably linked to each previous block of a chain of transactions that date back to currency creation.
Because of how these blocks are created and connected, they can serve as an immutable record of who owns what, even without a central authority that verifies the network as a whole. That property – the idea of a decentralized and "trusted" database – has proved to be interesting for uses beyond electronic money, with blockchain startups that now offer everything from cloud computing to virtual cards.
In recent years, it has gained popularity among humanitarian workers with charitable organizations that use it to transfer money at low cost and provide aid to refugees.
Tufic Al Rjula's birth certificate was destroyed in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Living for two years in a Dutch refugee camp while working in the asylum process, Al Rjula met more than 1,000 other "invisible" men, women and children whose identification documents were destroyed or unverifiable.
Years later, having personally experienced how centralized, paper-based IDs such as birth certificates, driving licenses and titles can easily be lost, falsified or misused, Al Rjula co-founded the award-winning startup Tykn with Jimmy Snoek. Tykn's mission statement is to provide "self-sufficient identity to all".
Al Rjula cites the punch card system used by the Nazis in World War II to identify and follow people on the basis of ethnicity as an example of how traditional forms of ID can be exploited and undermined.
Snoek says that while the paper-based ID is "non-resilient" to falsification, discrimination and loss, a blockchain-based system offers better protection.
In their host countries, refugees and stateless persons often live on the periphery of society. Unable to work legally and operate in "dark" economies based on liquidity and exploited, they are prevented from building the network of official connections necessary to verify their identity and open a bank account.
Blockchain-based initiatives, such as the Rohingya Project, could eventually enable people to build the network of relationships needed to participate in the modern global economy and prevent second and third generation "invisible" people from sliding into the poverty. It could also allow refugees to send money across borders, circumventing high transaction fees
In the refugee camp of Azraq in Jordan, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) uses blockchain and biometric data to help Syrian refugees buy groceries using a voucher system. This use of technology allows WFP to bypass bank charges.
But Al Rjula says that privacy is still a problem. "Technology is maturing, but implementation by startups and emerging technology companies is still lacking," he says.
The involvement of a fashionable technology such as blockchain can often be sufficient to guarantee funding, attention and support that start-ups – whether for profit or charity – need to thrive. But companies like Tykn still face many of the same problems as their old databases that use their counterparts, persuade governments and non-governmental organizations to use their services primarily to figure out how to make enough overhead to pay staff, while tackling also the inconstant problems of building on an avant-garde platform
Humanitarian initiatives based on the Blockchain will also have to deal with the problem of responsibility in their efforts to help refugees and those who are trapped in the limbo. ; statelessness.  Dilek Genc, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh who studies blockchain applications in humanitarian aid and development, says the aid community continues to push innovation using Silicon Valley belief "failing quickly and often" and experimenting with vulnerable peoples will fundamentally disagree with humanitarian principles and will not address the political roots of refugee problems.
This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world's most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Write to us at [email protected]