Fleeing religious persecution, war, violent conflict, and human rights abuse, millions of people have been uprooted from their homes. We call them refugees, forlorn people in search of refuge. Of the 65.6 million refugees worldwide, three countries account for 60 percent of the displaced: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.
What It Means to Be a Refugee
Being a refugee means that you are uprooted from your native land and home. It means you have lost your friends and a supportive social network. It implies that you have lost your identity because you have no proof you are who you are. Your academic qualifications have evaporated because you have no certificates to show. Your employability suffers because there’s no record of skills or past employment. Being a refugee is a crisis of extreme physical suffering, emotional trauma, and spiritual isolation.
More Than All the Aid in the World, It Is Technology That Inspires and Enables Lasting Solutions
In the seventh year of the Syrian Civil War, almost 6 million refugees have fled Syria. They fled with backpacks crammed with the personal possessions they could salvage, and a smartphone stashed in their pockets. The fleeing population tweeted or posted their distress in social media, making the world aware of the true nature of the crisis. If technology was the pallbearer conveying the shocking image of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on shore, technology was equally forthcoming in devising innovative solutions to help refugees in their darkest hour of distress. We consulted experts from Bedrock IT to find out more about technological solutions in the refugee crisis.
The Blockchain Solution: The Building Blocks Project in the Jordanian Desert
International aid, though forthcoming, had to reach the refugees, enabling them to meet their essential needs. Aid implementation faced teething problems.
- A Bank had to be identified that would accept the aid, open an account, deposit the amount, and reach it to the refugees.
- Refugees would have to open accounts in the Bank. Lack of identification papers would delay KYC compliance.
- The remote location of the camps would mean the end credit would have to be routed via financial couriers or mobile devices. This upped the cost of reaching aid to refugees.
- If cash couldn’t reach refugees, some form of credit facility would be needed, creating more regulatory complications.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) inspired blockchain solution cleared financial hurdles by eliminating banks and middlemen, and got the job done at a nominal cost. The blockchain solution was revolutionary.
The eye (Iris) scan of the beneficiary served to identify the recipient of the money. The blockchain created a repository where Iris scan details could be stored as a permanent record of identity. This ensured that the money went to the person for whom it was intended. The groceries purchased at the retail store could be billed using Iris scans. The blockchain reimbursed the money direct to the retail store. This way, the Iris scan enabled identification of the beneficiary, billing of the payment, delivery to the customer, and payment to the retail store without subjecting the beneficiary to any stress.
Because blockchain functions as an unchanging accounting ledger, credit facilities could be extended to refugees. Everything from credit availed to the end use of funds to repayments was archived in the blockchain. This information could be shared as a credit history for refugees wherever they settled. For refugees returning to Syria, a permanent credit record would be immensely useful in availing fresh credit for starting small businesses.
In the space of six months, the program covered 10,500 refuges and is rapidly expanding to cover 100,000 by the end of 2018.
The Jordanian project made it obvious that technology could be leveraged to restore the identity of the displaced. Equally important, technology promotes financial inclusion which would give refugees instant access to credit that traditional financial systems refuse to provide.
Artificial Intelligence: Stanford University AI Algorithm for Mainstreaming Refugees
Researchers at Stanford University developed a new AI machine-learning algorithm after studying refugee resettlement and integration. Archival records detailing refugee qualifications, skills, and experience were compiled. The AI algorithm matched the refugee skill profile to the area where the skill set was in high demand. In a real-life situation, this would open up employment opportunities for refugees by 74 percent. The algorithm has great potential for improving job security and will pave the path for integrating refugees into the mainstream of society.
3D-Printable Prosthetic Limbs for Refugees Disabled by War and Violence
If surviving the Syrian Civil War as a refugee was bad enough, losing one’s limbs was a frightening loss. Irbid in northern Jordan is now home to more than 126,000 Syrian refugees, and many including little children lost their arms and legs in blasts and bombings. For physically challenged people, upper-arm-assisted devices were unthinkable and unaffordable. Not anymore.
Loay Malahmeh and Dave Levin, founders of the Jordanian company, 3D Mena are using open source hardware and engineering inputs for harnessing the power and potential of 3D printed prosthetic hands. A young boy who lost all left-hand fingers received a 3D-printed prosthetic arm costing less than $75, which is a tenth of what it would have cost coming out of an advanced lab. And no medical professional was involved.
Another notable initiative is e-Nable, a global community of volunteers that provide free downloadable designs for prosthetic hand devices. A fast-growing community of volunteers having access to 3D printers work on prosthetic designs and share improvements. A total of 2000 prosthetic upper limb devices have been donated free to refugees.
UNICEF’s Crowdfunding Initiative to Create Innovation Labs in Refugee Camps
Learning and using digital skills is vital to any job in the modern world. This is particularly important for the youth, especially teenagers that are brimming with creative potential and need to move on in life. Emma Sinclair and James Sinclair, co-founders of software company EnterpriseJungle partnered with UNICEF to create innovation labs in Jordanian refugee camps using the crowdfunding route to raise funds.
Young refugees were equipped with tools, seed funding, and basic skills so they could innovate and build solutions themselves. A creditable achievement was the making of water purifiers to provide clean drinking water for refugees. The children could imbibe innovation skills and realize their potential as individuals responsible for their own development. Who better to solve community problems than the members who live and face problems in it?
Mercy Corps and Microsoft Partner to Bring Cloud Connectivity to Refugees
Innovative technological tools such as cloud computing, biometric data aggregation, blockchain, and artificial intelligence play a sterling role in solving the refugee crisis.
- Global IDs: Refugees lack any kind of officially recognized identification and this places them at a great disadvantage in availing various services. Accenture, Microsoft, Mercy Corps, Hyperledger, and UNICC partnered to create a Global ID database called ID2020 to solve the problem. Biometric scanning coded into the blockchain platform enabled refugees without identification documents to preserve and carry their IDs safely wherever they go. With ready access to IDs on handheld devices, refugees no longer needed to physically carry ID papers.
- Beneficiary Management Systems: Humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps created a beneficiary management system co-connected to the UNHCR’s data network. One of the keys benefits of the system is the cloud transmission of real-time health data on refugees. Caregivers could be alerted to take preventive action on detection of disease outbreaks.
- Artificial Intelligence: AI provides real-time predictive analysis which is useful in spotting problems before they worsen. For instance, one can correlate weather changes and livestock sales to predict rural distress that could trigger mass migration. AI’s before-and-after mapping algorithms are very useful in creating real-life scenarios that assist and coordinate relief operations.
Technology as an enabler and technology as a solution provider has a crucial role to play in improving the quality of life of refugees. Technology is powerful as a tool for education and skill development – two vital pillars that integrate refugees as productive community members. Technology has been able to cut through the red tape associated with mammoth financial institutions and government regulations.
Technology is reaching money where no financial network exists. Refugees now have a tool to access financial inclusion and the progress it promises. Technology has enabled physically challenged refugees to take up life’s biggest challenges head-on. Providing timely and better healthcare through cloud services is another field that has improved the lives of refugees immeasurably. Technology ensures that refugees have a future they can look forward to.