Technology for Good

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Identity documents are essential for refugees – but millions lack them. Without IDs, refugees are cut off from full participation in their host countries. Finance and technology innovators are working to develop digital identity solutions to solve this obstacle for people displaced by conflict.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

June 20, 2016

This story is published in partnership with News Deeply.

Article six of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declares, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

But without a passport or an ID card, how can you access this right? How can you prove you are who you say you are?

This is the quandary facing many of the world’s millions of refugees. Due to the circumstances in which they are sometimes forced to leave their home country, refugees often find themselves without identity documents. Without being able to demonstrate their identity, people are unable to access financial services, civic life, education and health care, and are left at risk of exploitation by those in positions of power.

Some say that rethinking identity itself is the best solution.

Currently, if a person loses their identity document, they have in effect lost their identity, says John Edge, founder of the non-profit ID2020, which develops tools that provide identity solutions for social impact.

“At the moment, our identity is based on our credentials: I am registered by my passport number, for example, not by my identity,” says Edge. “We need to de-couple identity from credentials and create self-sovereign identity, which means that I can prove who I am digitally – simply by being me.”

To make this happen, Edge wants to see Article 6 of the UDHR updated to include a right for everyone to have their own unique digital identity. This is the thinking behind a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) biometric registration initiative.

The agency collected data including fingerprints and photographs from refugees at various settlements in the South Sudanese state of Western Equatoria. Using this data, South Sudan’s Commission for Refugee Affairs (CRA) issued and distributed over 10,000 digital identity cards to refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan. These cards link to a database that allows the UNHCR to identify and serve recipients.

“Even in a place like South Sudan where the consequences of being undocumented are less drastic than in other countries, it is crucial that refugees are able to prove not only their identity but also that their presence in the country is lawful,” says Isabelle Misic, UNHCR Assistant Representative on Protection in South Sudan.

Refugees who lack IDs can’t access traditional financial products, but payment tools designed specifically for their needs can serve as a dual purpose as valuable identification.

Biometric data is being taken a step further in the Middle East with the use of iris scanning to provide financial inclusion services to Syrian refugees. This creates a unique-to-the-person record that includes one’s personal details, time of arrival, place of origin and occupation. IrisGuard, a company that provides iris-scanning technology, registered more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees this way by mid-2015, and in May 2016 began a pilot project with the UNHCR in two refugee camps in Jordan that will enable refugees to withdraw cash via an iris-scanning system.

The MasterCard Aid Network and World Vision have collaborated to combine identification with a point-of-sale card that internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees can use to receive aid and access goods and services. The chip-enabled card, which won best point-of-sale innovation from and change agent of the year best-in-category at the 2016 Pay Awards, works in areas without financial services and telecommunications infrastructure.

After natural disasters forced people from their homes in the Philippines and Nepal, World Vision distributed MasterCard Aid to IDPs and combined it with the organization’s Last Mile Mobile Solutions’ unique bar-encoded photo ID. This way, recipients can sign up for multiple aid programs with just one ID, and use the card they’re issued to pick up the food, shelter and medical care they need. This type of refugee and IDP aid distribution also provides extensive data on usage, movement and more that aid agencies can use to make their operations more efficient.

“Our contribution to inclusive communities is in the space that we do well: moving data, moving transactions and supporting financial inclusion,” says Paul Musser, vice president of international development at MasterCard. “Our long-term outcome is communities that flourish so our business can flourish.”

When it comes to identity initiatives, one of the biggest challenges remains getting these solutions to scale. To solve this, Trulioo is working on an instant identity verification platform, Global Gateway, which so far has the ability to verify four billion people in over 40 countries. The company aims to establish a digital ID for the entire global population, using, among other things, data from mobile apps. This, along with an individual’s current address, allows banks to identify their customers, eventually enabling them to offer banking products and even credit.

But what of those refugees without a formal abode? Many of the world’s refugees are in vast camps, such as the two-square-mile Za’atari camp in Jordan, or the sprawling Dadaab camp in Kenya. Can digital identity extend to people without a formal address?

Giles Rhys Jones, CMO at what3words, believes so. What3words works by dividing the globe into 57 trillion three-meter by three-meter squares and pre-allocating them a fixed and unique three-word address. So, an inefficient, error-prone descriptive address – such as “left of the baobab tree, past the petrol station and over the junction” – can be replaced by three, easy-to-memorize words such as candles, cares, dimension. Since it is an algorithm, this data small enough to install on almost all smartphones and works across platforms and devices.

“We are currently in 10 languages and we have 15 more that we are developing,” says Rhys Jones. “No matter what nationality you are or language you speak, our intention is that you can use this system to refer to any location anywhere.”

Featured Photo Caption: Families from Syria walk through a field to cross the border from Serbia to Croatia on October 2, 2015. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Corbis via Getty Images)