A Rohingya refugee woman at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
A Rohingya refugee at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where cases of the virus have been found. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The city of Bradford in the north of England is home to a large community of Rohingya people. They came to Bradford, via a UN resettlement program, after fleeing ethnic violence in their native Myanmar and then living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, often for many years.

Years of transience meant few had verifiable identities so every refugee that came to Bradford via the UN resettlement program was given, courtesy of the UK government, the same birthday.

“We have a big party on January 1st,” the General Secretary of the Bradford-based British Rohingya Community organization, Nijam Mohammed, told Asia Times with a laugh. But more worryingly, when Nijam has to fill in any official forms for the family that include details on his mum, dad or wife, he gets quizzed why they all have the same birthday.

Yes, it is funny, and of course stupid, but it also highlights a serious point about refugee identities. And about big data and the role that blockchain seems set to play an important part in.

Yesterday, Technology Review published an absorbing piece about the use of blockchain in Syrian refugee camps in Jordon.

An “Eye Pay” biometric recognition device, made by irisGuard, is being used in conjunction with the World Food Program’s “Building Blocks” program to send funds to refugees.

Building Blocks is a Ethereum blockchain-based project that has, since 2017, helped the WFP distribute cash-for-food aid to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. By 2019 it hopes to be working with all 500,000 refugees in the country as well as with other sister UN agencies and beyond.

In Jordon, when refugees go to a supermarket wired to Eye Pay, at the checkout instead of handing over cash they look into the biometric scanner and it checks the blockchain database to both confirm their identity and the credit in their bank account.

The WFP helps feed 80 million people around the globe and today instead of just delivering food it prefers to send credit directly to refugees. Transmitting funds via local finance networks can result in inefficiency, high operational costs and corruption. However, Technology Review says early results from the WFP Building Blocks program show an impressive 98 percent reduction in transaction fees.

But this, of course, is not just about food. According to the World Bank, more than a billion people – including refugees, trafficked children and the homeless – have no verifiable identity and as we all well know, without an ID you can’t get a bank account and everything else that leads to a stable and secure life. Blockchain, it is thought, can help solve this.

But can it lead to data privacy issues too? Or worse? The Facebook data issue is a huge story in the most developed corners of the globe right now. So how will big data work on the world’s most vulnerable?

There are various initiatives to implement digital ID schemes on the almost one million Rohingya living as refugees in Bangladesh right now. Central to the Muslim Rohingya story is ethnicity and religion. The Rohingya have been made stateless by an element of a regime that tries to argue they are not from Myanmar. UN officials have said this has caused “acts of genocide” to be carried out against the Rohingya.

Digital identity cards for the Rohingya would have solved Nijam Mohammed’s birthday party issues in Bradford. But what else could they be used for?

Zara Rahman, writing in IrinNews, says “massive amounts of personal and biometric data are being gathered from hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh” and this is something that “should set off multiple alarm bells.”

“What data should be collected, by whom?” writes Rahman. “Who has access to it? In case of machine or human error, what processes are in place to review and make changes? What could be the unintended consequences of these growing databases? How could the data be abused?”

In Bradford, Nijam Mohammed is quick to say how lucky and thankful he and his immediate family are to be in the UK. He and other members of the British Rohingya Community still have many other family members in camps in Bangladesh and their life stories are both galling and inspiring.

Nijam, who is bright, articulate and quick to smile, works as a taxi driver by night so he can spend his days working on British Rohingya Community initiatives that can highlight the plight of his people.

“We have become stateless in our own country, unwanted and subjected to ethnic cleansing only because we are an ethnic minority. Our people need identities, but we also need safeguards.

“Repatriation currently is a real concern for the people in the camps,” he says. “The world cannot be tricked into allowing that to happen… without strict monitoring.”

Here, blockchain needs to be the solution, not the problem.

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