The Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. Image: AFP PHOTO / Ahmad ABDO

The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies are increasingly turning to blockchain to try to help refugees. The World Bank estimates that more than a billion people have no way to prove their identity and say the longer a person goes without an identity, the harder it is to re-establish or verify one. Blockchain, it is hoped, can help provide such a record.

Projects include a Finnish Immigration Service partnership with Helsinki-based startup MONI, that offers refugees a prepaid Mastercard that links to a blockchain-based digital identity. Similarly, in Moldova the government is working with United Nations digital identification experts to develop ways to use blockchain to provide rural children with identities so as to help protect them from people traffickers .

The UN World Food Program launched a project in Jordan last year that issues food vouchers to Syrian refugees stationed at the Azraq Refugee Camp. The vouchers link a person to a retina scanning system, that sits on the Ethereum-based Building Blocks blockchain, that allows for both identity verification and access to food handouts. Over time, it is hoped the program will help to build credit histories that the refugees can use after resettlement and it is has worked so well that the UN says it is going to expand the project to camps across Jordon.

A public-private initiative called ID2020 has been linking major players from the IT and non-profit sectors – it includes the likes of Microsoft and UNHCR – to develop technology that will help undocumented people secure elements of identity that could be children’s vaccination cards or voter registration documentation. This initiative is now also starting to review blockchain-based opportunities, while in London, UK start-up blockchain.info is also working with the United Nations on ways that blockchain technology can be used in other humanitarian and environmental areas.

The partnership, that was launched last week with the publication of a policy white paper, “The Future is Decentralised”, hopes to provide “a first step in helping policy makers, regulators and UN Member States gain an understanding of blockchain technology.”