In a blink: iris recognition technology checks the identity of Syrian refugees at Jordan’s Zaatari camp © UNHCR/David Azia
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

When Abed Alraheem Alomari picks up food for his family at a supermarket run by the UN World Food Programme in the refugee camp in Jordan where he lives, he does so without reaching for a wallet, an ID, or cash.

After stocking up on staples such as sugar, rice, oil and flour, Mr Alomari, who is 36 and fled Syria in 2016 with his wife and four children, goes to the checkout to have his iris scanned. The WFP began using iris scans — which experts say are a faster and more reliable form of biometric identification than fingerprinting — to check individuals’ identities against a UNHCR database of registered refugees. This database, in turn, is the gateway for providing a range of services to more than half a million refugees registered in Jordan.

Meanwhile, blockchain, which tracks transactions securely, is the newest technology being trialled by the WFP and is invisible to the naked eye. It keeps a record of how much food Mr Alomari has collected, and how much vendors are owed. In an emailed comment sent to the FT via the WFP, Mr Alomari describes the system as “easy” to use, and “safer” than coupons or electronic cards that might get lost or misplaced.

“Our pilot is the largest implementation of blockchain technology for humanitarian aid in the world,” says Houman Haddad, the WFP’s head of emerging technology. The aid agency piloted its Building Blocks programme with 100 people in Pakistan last year. This was expanded, first to 10,000 people, then 100,000, in Jordan. “Our next goal is to increase it to 500,000 people — in other words, all the people we serve,” says Mr Haddad.

Many refugees, whether Syrians in the Levant, Somalis and South Sudanese in Kenya, or Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, fled their homes under desperate circumstances, often with few — if any — documents confirming their identity. The issue of IDs is particularly sensitive in the case of the Rohingya, an oppressed minority to whom their native Myanmar denies citizenship and who — even before last year’s brutal military crackdown — were described as “immigrants” with severe restrictions on their movement and other basic rights.

The new technologies piloted in the humanitarian sphere, including blockchain and advanced biometrics, offer refugees confirmable identity documents that can be stored in the cloud. These, in turn, enable refugees to rebuild lives and careers, either when they return home or in asylum countries.

While Building Blocks is, for now, solely used by the WFP, it could in future be used by other parties to store and confirm vaccination records, educational achievements or address information. “The technology allows the end-user — in this case the refugee — to take ownership and control over their own data,” says WFP’s Mr Haddad. Donor countries support the idea of cutting-edge identification and payment systems for migrants that can make their financial contributions go further, minimise fraud and — possibly over time — even eliminate middlemen from the aid business.

In future, says Marcel Dietsch, co-founder of Covee Network, a blockchain start-up seeking to sell its services in the humanitarian sphere, “you may not need central organisations like the traditional firm, or bureaucratic aid organisations like the UN, to get people to do something valuable together”.

The technological advance coincides with a debate in the humanitarian community over the best and most cost-effective ways of helping — or, to use a more fashionable word, empowering — refugees, while minimising the collateral economic damage their presence can cause to the countries they find themselves in.

Part of the debate centres on whether refugees should be given cash or food aid in kind via electronic cards. “The whole point of giving cash as opposed to in-kind food aid is that you confer dignity and choice on the beneficiary,” says James Shepherd-Barron, a disaster management consultant. The evolution in philosophy is happening quickly and is mirrored in the WFP’s transition over the past decade from providing hot meals to food boxes, then to supermarkets that accept electronic cards.

With more donor countries pushing for direct cash payments, the aid agency is now moving into a combination of electronic vouchers and cash. Aid officials acknowledge that advanced technology alone will not eliminate waste or fraud, but it can lessen it.

To give one example, the US is now investigating alleged identity fraud among members of Myanmar’s Chin minority. They entered the country via Malaysia, where the UN captured refugees’ fingerprints. Fraudsters, however, are believed to have bought other refugees’ identities or used false names.

In Bangladesh, the UN is working with the government to verify and create a joint database for Rohingya refugees, whose influx last year was massive and at times chaotic. Some were registered more than once and there was little record of family groups.

The government had issued laminated paper cards that are now being replaced by plastic ones with bar and QR codes that are hard to counterfeit. This “joint verification exercise”, say officials, will allow them to keep track of aid needs, births and deaths.

“Eventually we will have a very accurate number of who is in our refugee caseload,” says Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR spokeswoman at Cox’s Bazar, a town in Bangladesh. “After this process, we will have absolutely verified numbers, and the information we need to give them access to services and enhanced protection.”

Get alerts on Blockchain when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.
About this Special Report

With finite aid unable to meet infinite need, the UN wants business to emulate mobile operators and see refugees as customers rather than victims. Plus: the new technologies and fresh approaches to housing and education to help refugees rebuild their lives

Follow the topics in this article