Bringing Aid to Rohingya Genocide Refugees with Crypto

Joe Waltman
Feb 1, 2019 · 5 min read

GiveCrypto’s mission is to help people in need by distributing cryptocurrency. To this end, we’ve been experimenting with an ambassador model to reach those in need by delegating on-the-ground donation responsibilities to people living in, or near, the communities of the recipients.

While we are still experimenting with the best way to connect funds with local need, we believe that most human beings possess a fundamental desire to help others, but often lack the tools and resources to unlock this energy.

Our idea is a relatively simple one: we provide funds to ambassadors with local knowledge who can direct funds to the neediest people. We hope that their strong community ties will inspire a committed desire to help those around them.

We found one of these amazing individuals in 2018: Hasibul, a civil engineering student in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

A few years ago, Hasibul had been moved by the plight of the Rohingya people, who had been driven from Myanmar by its government into a refugee camp in Bangladesh. He felt a special connection to them as he is also Muslim and from a village near the Myanmar border.

When we told Hasibul about our desire to help residents of the refugee camp by distributing cryptocurrency, he immediately volunteered to take the 10–12 hour bus ride from Dhaka.

How to Connect Refugees in Dire Straits with Digital Aid

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the situation in Rohingya, we’d be hard-pressed to overstate the adversity and genocide these people have experienced at the hands of their government.

Despite spotty reporting due to government censorship, many believe the Myanmar army committed an on-going genocide against the Rohingya since 2016, causing a massive wave of migration from Myanmar to Bangladesh and killing nearly 10,000 people. The actions of the Myanmar military are regarded as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations.

Those that were lucky enough to escape this genocide in Myanmar by making a 100-kilometer trek to Bangladesh were greeted with the Kutupalong refugee camp. And, at least for the foreseeable future, Kutupalong is where they’ll remain amid reports from the UN that refugees cannot be safely relocated to their homeland.

Unfortunately, Kutupalong is more jail than sanctuary.

Another migration wave last year caused the number of refugees in Kutupalong to double to more than one million, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. Refugees are subjected to squalid conditions and denied basic rights that we take for granted: the ability to move freely, enjoy readily available water and food, work, own a phone, etc.

Since it’s technically illegal for Rohingya refugees to own telephones, finding a way to distribute the cryptocurrency was challenging. Thankfully, many refugees have found a way to use cell phones despite this restriction. We were able to use CoinText, which recently launched its service in Bangladesh, to transfer crypto by text message.

When Hasibul arrived on December 26th, his first job was to find needy recipients. After talking with a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the camp, he decided to focus on people who had lost their spouse during the genocide.

Sadly, this left many people to choose from.

Hasibul ended up selecting 21 widows and widowers and taught them how to use the CoinText service, which involves sending text messages to transfer cryptocurrency.

But then we ran into the next hurdle: finding a vendor that would accept payments in cryptocurrency.

As it’s effectively impossible to convert cryptocurrency to cash in the Kutupalong refugee camp, we needed a vendor who would exchange food and supplies for crypto. And, again, we ran into an issue of legality: it’s illegal for refugees in the camp to engage in commercial activity.

After some searching, however, Hasibul found a refugee, who sells food and basic supplies, willing to accept crypto for payment.

From there, we set up a rather manual process where the vendor sent us the crypto he collected each week and, in return, we send him the equivalent amount of Bangladesh’s local currency (Taka) via a mobile money service.

The Feasibility of Ambassador-led Cryptocurrency Aid in Kutupalong

It’s important to note that the rules around doing aid work in Kutupalong are unclear. We got conflicting information about the approvals needed for us to enter the camp and help refugees and, because of this, we decided to ask forgiveness rather than permission in order to help those in need.

The complexity of the local regulations means that this particular project likely isn’t scalable and that we would have to get formal approval if we wanted to help a larger number of refugees.

While it would be easy to dismiss the project’s positive impact as anecdotal, we at GiveCrypto feel it’s a compelling example of the value of the ambassador model. We have recently started building a platform that will allow us to deploy the concept at scale.

And, in the meantime, we feel satisfied that, despite the barriers between the digital world of cryptocurrency and the tragic living situation of the Rohingya people, 21 refugees and their families were able to the necessary supplies to live a little better.

Because the world is made better when people like Hasibul are empowered to make a difference in their communities, we’re committed to using cryptocurrency to fuel those actions.

A new charitable organization that accepts and distributes…

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