Techfugees Founder on Leveraging Blockchain to Help Refugees

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For all the flack blockchain and crypto get for being voodoo dark net money, many organizations are beginning to understand the potential for blockchain to provide pervasive social impact. One of the hot topics of discussion at the Blockchain for Social Impact conference was how blockchain will help alleviate the numerous maladies associated with the worldwide refugee problem.

One of the leaders in this effort is Techfugees’ CEO Josephine Goube. Techfugees is a global non-profit organization that coordinates the commitment of the tech community to displaced people needs.  Techfugees supports the build-up of technology-enabled solutions for displaced people around the world. Their goal is to empower displaced populations through access to rights, education, health, employment and social inclusion.

CoinCentral’s Richard Malone had the opportunity to briefly chat with Josephine about the current state and pervasive myths about displaced peoples, and blockchain’s place in solving these issues.

So please enjoy this interview with Techfugees CEO, Josephine Goube.

(This interview was conducted at the Blockchain for Social Impact conference in June 2018)

Can you give our readers a brief description of what Techfugees is all about?

Techfugees is an international nonprofit that’s coordinating the commitment of the tech community to displaced people, with the displaced people. It does it in the five areas: access to rights information, access to employment, access to education, health and social inclusion. The way we work is through Hackathons, workathons, meetups, summits and all the programming we do around. It’s really creating a space of education for non-refugees and refugees to meet and build technology together.

Techfugees logo

What are some of the myths of the life of a refugee? What are some things that people believe about refugees that aren’t really true?

The perception people have, on average, is that refugees are mostly coming from war-torn countries, which is just not true. 2/3rds are actually fleeing away because of environmental factors. There are more people displaced by fluctuations in climate than anything else. They don’t just come in from Syria. If you look at the numbers of displaced people, it’s more than 68 million. Seven million come from Colombia. You have a lot of Palestinians. You have to think more broadly about the variety of situations you find for refugees in.

I still can’t get a reliable number of women in that lot, but refugees are not just men. More than half of them are under 18. You have to get this across. The second thing is most people move to the country next to their border. They don’t move to Europe or to the US. It’s the privileged one, the one that had enough money to either go through a legal system or mostly through an illegal smuggler. Illegal smuggler is a bit redundant to say.

I guess I’m speaking for the Western crowd of what a refugee is. I could go into details, but first, the term “refugee” is a legal status to get. It’s not like you get it because you crossed the border. It can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years before one is deemed an “asylum seeker” or refugee. On average, the time spent in a camp is 17 years. Only 20% of refugees are in camps. They’re in urban areas. They’re not like those people that you think they are. It’s a lot of myths.

Environmental Refugees, courtesy of

That is surprising. You see all of those pictures on google of refugee camps…massive camps with people wearing torn clothing. It sounds like a paradigm shift is necessary.

Yep, people crossing borders…it almost looks like an invasion. And that’s only a fraction of the journey for a refugee, but that’s the only image that comes to people’s mind if you are to ask them what they see when you say “refugee”.

What are some of the embedded issues of the refugee crisis where blockchain can be a good solution? Where is blockchain’s place in solving the refugee crisis?

I’m going to be a pain in the ass. We don’t use refugee crisis because it’s a political term of making it a crisis when it’s a political crisis and a crisis of hospitality. By politics, by refugee crisis, you mean the 68 million people that are displaced today that are not getting welcome and included into society and getting those rights and access to services.

At Techfugees, we see five challenges, five pain points, five things that need – the things mentioned earlier. First is access to rights and information. It’s the one thing that they don’t have that they’re trying to navigate. Second thing, access to education. A lot of them had education and can’t get it recognized outside of their country. The third is employment. They want to get back to work. They’ve lost everything. They’ve lost their revenue, house, car, employment, so they need to get back on track. Their health is one that is close to the humanitarian sector is through the journey and their mental health. It is like a nightmare going through that forced displacement that wears heavy on their health. The fifth is social inclusion. They need to feel at home again in the place where they end up.

That’s what we’ve categorized. It’s what most refugees and refugees need once they arrive at a safe place. When people talk about refugees, they often picture their needs to be around food, shelter, water…that sort of stuff. This is certainly important and needs to be provided in the initial stage. Then after a while, as any human being displaced people are looking for ways to get on with life, and that is when they get trapped in that  limbo trying to access those five things: health, information, education, employment, social inclusion.

Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In blockchain, so far, I just know of two projects that have been really tested on the grand scale that we can talk about. Money in Finland and WFP. I can’t really speak about Money because I have not been in-depth doing due diligence on this. I only know from the founder to some of their employees to what I read about online. I don’t trust these resources as just information that is sort of promoting what they do. But I know what they’re trying to do, and I think they have been doing a fantastic job going about it and testing for almost three years.

For the WFP, I know that they’re giving cash to refugees so they can get food and anything they need immediately. They’re trying to scale to 100,000 people. To date, they’re providing food to 10,000 or 15,000 people. This blockchain is a private one, not a public one. They own it, and it helps them avoid going through a local vendor. It saves a lot of money, but it doesn’t give them an identity as official documents. If this goes on as a pilot, I think they started last June, so it’s been almost a year.

It could just be like a sort of track record of their expenses and the way they spend on food which could lead to information like someone’s profile of the way he spends money. It could be interesting to start building trusted IDs out of this, but I haven’t seen anything giving the refugees ownership over their data because this is closed. Only WFP can see it. So, to answer your question, there’s a lot of projects that are being pitched as proof of concept.

I’m sure they’re great. I’m sure they have excellent ideas, but I haven’t seen anything on the ground that has been doing anything to provide refugees with a choice or educating them to what blockchain can do for them. Nothing that gives them an education. Only the cash thing is working today, and it’s not visible to the refugees anyway because they’re using the eye scan thing they were using before.

One of the best use cases that I’ve come across so far for blockchain is the privacy of data. Owning your personal data, of course, but also self-sovereign identity in general. What would self-sovereign identity and ownership of data, or at least access to data, do to help the situation?

To describe it from a user’s journey, the refugees are crossing borders, and they end up in a country where they don’t have rights, and they sometimes don’t have their IDs and papers because they didn’t have time to get them. If blockchain technology could prove this person is, in fact, that person, and it’s on a digital wallet that’s trusted, you could save them a lot of time.

It could help them open bank accounts to receive money, or they wouldn’t have to go through smuggling or the Silk Road system back in the days that some are still using. It would save them money, it would save them time, and then it’s probable that through that identity, everything that is linked to their identity. So, education credentials, employment credentials could be linked to that. It would really open a Pandora’s Box of stuff.

We need to look at the other side of this where what I found interesting is that blockchain is tried on very vulnerable people. Tracking what they do and what they buy and their ID is something that they’re suspicious about. Why do you do this? The definition of a refugee is someone who’s forced to flee because of a threat of death.

The one thing that they don’t want is to be identified or tracked. From my work with refugees, each time we try to help them with digital stuff, if they can put the least information about themselves, they will do because they do not want to be tracked. There’s a tension between using blockchain that wants to make their data public. You can anonymize it, I know, but it’s still capturing a lot of data about their lives. Let’s talk about data security at the core of the blockchain you will create for refugees because that will be the tipping point where the refugees will be interested or not.

When I talk about blockchain and the potential from refugees that are engineers themselves, they’re very concrete. Every day, they deal with the government and state agencies that don’t recognize blockchain. If the government acknowledges blockchain technology, that will make a difference, but otherwise, how is it going to be useful and scalable for most displaced people?. The second thing, we are running a women refugee fellowship programme in France. We’re supporting these women to use online tools to find jobs and get their diplomas recognized.

We had a session on getting them on LinkedIn and using LinkedIn in France to find employers. Two women didn’t want to get into this and didn’t want their personal information to be available to employers.

They said, “I don’t want them to know where I’m from because they will not employ me. If they know that I’m from Iraq and I worked for a certain company, they will not employ me. If they know that I worked in Libya, they will not employ me. I don’t want to be seen as a refugee to hire me.” This is what you see when you are with them. If you’re building for the refugees, you have to do it with them and for them. Not for your institution…not according to your idea of how to save the world or change the design of the world. Be curious!

We come from privileged backgrounds. We don’t really understand at the basic level what they’re going through. Obviously, you would know a little bit more than someone like myself. You talked about how the real way to resolve this issue is not to build something that they become reliant on, but something that empowers them. What does that empowerment look like?

For example, a typical piece of blockchain, in an ideal world, the refugees would know what blockchain is, will know what the value of their data is, and how to protect it online and how to make use of it. It’s not so much about “is the blockchain here and technically working?” It’s about the use and understanding they have of the blockchain technology for themselves. In an ideal world, we’d focus on education and empowerment of the refugees on how to use and create the blockchain. However, not every refugee wants to be a blockchain developer or will be able to be.

So what matters is that refugees and displaced people are introduced to using and understanding what the technology can do for them and its limitations. That’s what we do at Techfugees. A lot of people come to us and say “build technology!”, but no, sorry, we don’t directly build ourselves. We create and design a space where refugees and non-refugees meet to build technology. That’s a space of education for both people.

The non-refugees learn about the real challenges of a refugee – the actual journey and situation. For the refugees, they learn how to empower themselves with the technology and what’s available. So, this connection is essential, and we do a lot of education around this.

That’s the key. But here, we hit the political challenge of our work Only a few people want or have an interest in empowering refugees and displaced people. They are seen as or made to feel as second-class citizens. This is in direct conflict with the predicted reality of climate displacement that’s going to hit Western countries soon.

Western governments will have to respond to the challenge of massive internal migration of their own populations. That’s when we are going to ask: what have you been doing all these years with other displaced people? How could you not see this coming and prepare for it? We’re going to have more and more people displaced due to the effects of climate change.

Will governance be ready to recognize the rights of people as they did back after World War II? You should look at history because I think history’s repeating here. In the 1920’s, you had the Bolsheviks taking over Russia, and you had a lot of people trying to flee. You had Russian refugees going to Europe.

They used a passport called Nansen passports. You could go to several embassies of European countries to ask for that passport within Russia, and you would leave. It’s almost like you’re in your country, you’re trying to fly away, and you’re going to a consulate that gives you a stamp to get out and get accepted in another country.

This is not working anymore, but with that, it’s more than the 400,000 people that in those few years, fled away from Russia to Europe. Can you imagine that number compared to today’s less than 20,000 resettled refugees by the EU. It’s not for a lack of technical capacities – but of political will.

Today, if you’re in Syria, no consulate will give you any paperwork. You will have to pay the smugglers. It’s the rule of the informal market. You have to first illegally migrate in a country that is at their border. In 98% of situations, you’ll have to come to the country illegally to apply to the status. The resettlement happening is when you go to a refugee camp in Lebanon or in Turkey, and then you put your name down to the UNHCR, and you say, “I’m a displaced person, can you recognize my status?” Then they say, “Okay, we’ll go through your case. You’ll have to prove that you’ve been threatened with death.” You prove your case. UNHCRS says, “Yes, you’re a refugee.” Stamp, boom. You’re in limbo for two years, five years, 17 years.

You don’t know, but you take that risk that this international agency, the UNHCR, is now protecting you in that camp and will take your case to resettle you in a country that will accept you. There are resettlement quotas in these countries.

Raad Adayleh/AP

But, for many refugees I know, they are young, especially 17-24 year olds. You want to escape the camp, you do not want to put your life in the hands of a UN agency that you don’t trust anymore, given the failures and the cracks in the system. All of them have tried to remove themselves, and they’ve been attempting to escape from the UNHCR, they’ve been attempting to flee from any governments that try to get their fingerprints because when this is done, they don’t have any more power over their lives.

These are the stories that people need to hear, to understand how to empower those people and to really make a difference. Historically, there were ways, and it’s very political here. Are the governments ready to recognize that half of these 68 million people are under 18? They want to grow into healthy adults or they will be a burden on society.

They need to be granted the right to access a country that gives education, employment, and all these things.

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If this whole issue is not humanitarian, then what type of issue is this?

It’s not only humanitarian. It’s not humanitarian at first for all the poor ones that are forced to flee that don’t have any money and are even illiterate and all of this. I said it’s very political. It’s a world challenge. We have people that are going to be forced to flee. I don’t know how to qualify it, it’s a big challenge. We need to know how to make a society with people not born in the culture they end up in. We need to live up to our Human Right principles and values – and secondly, we need to save democracy.

We need to build technologies and systems that support these values.  It could be laws, it could be recognition, but it could also be blockchain that lives up to our principals and to our democracies. I’m terrified that our democracies are not going to survive that given xenophobic, extreme right parties getting into power and using social media to spread hatred and misinformation. We could go into the same vicious cycle that we’ve reverted back to many, many times.

It’s crazy and unfortunate that xenophobia is still a thing.

Xenophobia is very human. Instead, populism, in my opinion, is a very concerning danger. I’ll make it short. Xenophobia is a reaction to the unknown. It’s like I’m afraid of a person I don’t know. That’s human to be afraid of what we don’t know. It can be easily solved with education.

Extreme right parties – populism is essentially someone making money and benefiting from our fear of “the other”, for his own sake, and that’s the real danger. Xenophobia can be tamed …populism needs to be eradicated.

Agreed. Thanks for your time, Josephine.

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