Blockchain Records for Refugees

The world needs systems of record that can withstand war, economic collapse, and climate catastrophes — before they happen.


Since 2011, the world has been stunned, transfixed, and horrified by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which, combined with other conflicts, has pushed the global number of refugees and internally displaced people to its highest level since the Second World War. While images of terrified civilians on overturning boats and in refugee camps populate the media, comparatively little is written about the long, mundane, and difficult process of beginning a new life in a new country. That process hinges fundamentally on documentation: the ability of individuals to prove not only who they are, but what they own, what they can do, and what they have already done.

Since the early 20th century, international organizations have recognized the pressing need refugees have to document who they are. It wasn’t until 1951, however, that the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees made the issuance of travel or identity documents to refugees binding upon signatory states. However, the issuance of official documents to people who have already become refugees is at best a stopgap measure; the ability to prove bare-bones identity claims, as required by the UN Convention (name, date and place of birth, current address), does little for the individual beyond establishing a highly precarious, semi-legal existence. The only solution to the problem of lack of refugee documentation is preventative: governments, educational institutions, companies, and other organizations worldwide must begin issuing official records in a format that is permanent, portable, easily recoverable, and individual-owned — long before a catastrophe occurs.

Academic Credentials: A Matter of Life and Death

Some of the most valuable official records are those pertaining to an individual’s educational history. Documentation of achievement can mean the difference between employability and unemployability in a new country — or a career with an upward path of advancement and a lifetime of unskilled labor. When war strikes a country, these possessions become endangered: schools can shut down or be destroyed; students may be killed simply for going to school; school administrators may be killed, threatened, or flee the country; and official documents may be lost or simply inaccessible.

In October of 2014, Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner at the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), gave a TED Talk in which she illustrated the life-and-death significance of certificates of learning for Syrian refugees.

“Let’s Help Refugees Thrive, Not Just Survive.” TED Talk by Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner at the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). October 2014.

A Syrian refugee boy I know told me that he didn’t hesitate when his life was in imminent danger. He took his high school diploma, and later he told me why. He said, “I took my high school diploma because my life depended on it.” And he would risk his life to get that diploma. On his way to school, he would dodge snipers. His classroom sometimes shook with the sound of bombs and shelling, and his mother told me, “Every day, I would say to him every morning, ‘Honey, please don’t go to school.’” And when he insisted, she said, “I would hug him as if it were for the last time.” But he said to his mother, “We’re all afraid, but our determination to graduate is stronger than our fear.”

For the boy in Melissa’s story, his High School Diploma meant nothing less than his future. But many Syrian refugees have been unable to take their academic transcripts or diplomas with them to their new countries of residence, which has translated into the loss of opportunity at enormous scale. Jessica Magaziner, Credential Analyst at World Education Services, recently wrote about the massive loss of education and skill faced by Syrian refugees unable to continue their education in the countries that have received them.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) has estimated that 450,000 of these refugees are of university age (18–22 years old) and around 100,000 of those people are eligible to enter university. Only a very small percentage of these students has been able to continue higher education in their host countries. This has created a “lost generation” of university students for Syria, an issue that has lasting implications for the country’s future.

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It is crucial to remember that this issue does not affect Syrian refugees alone. Johannes Tarvainen, an education officer at UNHCR, estimates that one percent of all refugees worldwide have access to higher education. This issue also affects refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Disaster-Proof Official Records on the Blockchain

Academic records are only one example of high-stakes credentials that can significantly impact an individual’s future life trajectory. Government-issued identification is increasingly becoming a necessity to participate in all forms of civic life: travel, voting, employment, banking, etc. Yet the World Bank estimates that 1/6 of the world’s population (over a billion people) cannot legally prove their identity. These are not only refugees but large swaths of the poor, 78% of whom live in rural areas with less access to important services like education, healthcare, sanitation, and employment. Moreover, economist Hernando DeSoto estimates that worldwide, $20 trillion worth of assets (houses, cars, etc.) have no titles, so individuals and groups cannot legally prove ownership. This decreases the value of these assets (known as “dead capital”) and makes it difficult to lend or borrow against them.

Most records are still issued on paper or other physical formats, though digitization efforts by governments and industries are proceeding all over the world. Nevertheless, digital documents can be just as ephemeral as paper; often issued in proprietary formats by vendors trying to capture customers, institutions without the correct software may not be able to read or verify them. Even with the correct software, the verification process can be tedious and uncertain. The same goes for digital signatures: even in places where legislation has mandated their acceptance, digital signatures come in a wide variety of formats with varying levels of security, not all of which are accepted as legal proof. Another difficulty with digital documents is that one of the primary ways people share information digitally — email — is usually not secure, so proprietary transmission infrastructures need to be built to send sensitive documents, such as health records. This greatly improves on the security of postal mail, but raises interoperability headaches. Finally, like paper documents, digital documents can also be spoofed by sophisticated users in ways that are difficult to detect.

A pathbreaking innovation in digital infrastructure has recently given the world a way to bypass these difficulties with the preservation and verification of electronic records: the blockchain. The genius of this data storage method is that it also adds a benefit that has traditionally been at odds with document security: recipient ownership. In other words, the blockchain allows individuals to own their official records and share them with any third party for instant verification, all the while precluding any attempt to tamper with or edit the records.

The blockchain is a ledger that records transactions — such as the issuing of official records by an institution to an individual. Each transaction is recorded by hundreds or thousands of nodes (depending on the size of the network) all over the world in identical copy. This means that if one node goes down, all the other nodes still have the full record of transactions going all the way back to the very first one. The distributed nature of the blockchain means it is virtually impossible to hack or take down, and no central authority can decide to destroy or edit it. Not only that, but transactions recorded to the blockchain are permanent. Once a record has been issued to the blockchain, it cannot be changed (though it can be revoked). Finally, all transactions on the blockchain are pseudonymous, meaning that the content of a transaction can’t be derived from the blockchain record itself. For all these reasons, the blockchain is the most durable and secure data infrastructure for storing official records.

For vulnerable populations, the blockchain presents an opportunity to prove all kinds of claims, anywhere in the world, without relying on continued verification from issuing institutions. This means that even if a government collapses or a school disappears, that individual still has their records in a digital format they can take anywhere. These documents can be instantly verified as authentic without contacting issuing institutions — an important feature for individuals fleeing political persecution.

The value of the blockchain for refugees has been remarked by many observers, such as The Milken Institute’s Staci Warden. In 2016, an e-governance consultancy firm, Humanitarian Blockchain, was founded to provide refugees with non-biometric legal identity, cryptocurrency transfers, and e-residencies, among other services. The Electronic Cash Transfer Learning Action Network (ELAN) has been at the forefront of researching the blockchain as a method of cash and voucher transfer for refugees. Yet the most powerful crisis intervention is a preventative one. Providing individuals all over the world with tamper-proof, maximally-transferrable, instantly-verifiable digital records that they own means that the refugees of the future will be able to leave dangerous geographic areas without sacrificing their identities, achievements, and even their property titles. Governments and aid organizations, in turn, will save vast resources that currently go toward vetting, containing, and documenting refugees and displaced persons.

Recipient Ownership: The Blockcerts Open Standard

Many governments, educational institutions, companies, and other organizations are investing in the promise of blockchain technology. However, the greatest potential of the blockchain lies in giving individuals control of their own data and presentation in the world — a principle sometimes referred to as “self-sovereign identity.” Adhering to this principle is crucial if we want to prevent the blockchain from becoming a breathtakingly efficient means of population control. People deserve not only to take their records wherever they go and have them effortlessly validated as authentic, but also to decide when and how their personal information is accessed and used, something they cannot do under current digital data management practices.

Commitment to the principle of recipient ownership is what led Learning Machine and the MIT Media Lab to develop the Blockcerts open standard for issuing and verifying credentials on the blockchain. The standard allows any institution or government to write its own software for issuing and verification. Blockcerts is free and available for anyone to use without credit or royalties to its core developers; already, dozens of organizations and individuals around the world are using it to build applications. It’s also free for recipients: the Blockcerts mobile app can be downloaded for both iOS and Android without charge, and its code is also completely open-source.

The purpose of making Blockcerts open source was to avoid a standards war and vendor lock-in — two major impediments to the easy interoperability and wide adoption that are prerequisites for true recipient ownership of official records. Data trapped in silos is the status quo we are struggling with today and which the blockchain gives us the opportunity to move beyond. For refugees and displaced persons, being able to share their records with officials who can instantly verify their authenticity can mean the difference between the granting of an asylum or residency claim and being sent back to their place of origin; it can mean the difference between employment and joblessness; between having a home they can call their own and life in a camp. It can mean the difference between an education and a lifetime of low-skilled work. As Magaziner notes, refugees contribute immensely to rebuilding their countries after hostilities end; educating them is an investment not only in their futures, but in the future of entire regions. The blockchain gives us the means to facilitate refugee access to higher education in ways that were not possible before.

Recipient-Owned Records as a Public Utility

Given the significance of trusted documentation for human development, and the importance of user-controlled data as a guarantor of human rights in an era of increasing electronic surveillance by states and corporations, recipient-owned records should be considered nothing less than a public utility. Although there is no world government that can provide this utility to all people, major international organizations are spearheading efforts to make legal documentation more accessible. For example, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 16.9 states: “By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.” Accordingly, the UN’s ID2020 initiative and the World Bank’s ID4D program have emerged to help governments around the world implement this goal, often through public-private partnerships. Since the commitment to providing people around the world with legal documentation is already there, that commitment can be enhanced to make that documentation self-sovereign as well: truly owned and administratively controlled by the individual rather than by centralized institutions.

The single most important thing that governments, corporations, schools, professional institutions, and other groups can do to ensure that refugees from future disasters have reliable, portable documentation is to begin issuing official records to the blockchain using an open standards-based approach, like Blockcerts. As worldwide adoption increases, scenarios like the current massive loss of credentials in Syria, the Central African Republic, the Sudan, and other conflict areas can be precluded in advance. Ultimately, the goal is to ease displaced persons into a more hopeful new life while protecting them from victimization by powerful actors. Working together, this is something we can achieve.

If you are interested in learning more about how your institution can get started issuing and verifying recipient-owned official records, please contact us.