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Refugee camps are micro-economies, becoming cryptocurrency hubs

The Refugee Integration Organisation is paying refugees an Unconditional Basic Income through Celo cryptocurrency, which can function without a smartphone.

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Refugees have been particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic – receiving less integration support and care. Are these vulnerable communities victims of politics, technological limitations or the lack of human will to act?

Despite the varied and extensive skill sets of refugees, their desire to work and contribute to local and larger economies, refugee economic integration and development has been slow and poorly supported.

The current situation, where refugees are housed in camps for decades at a time, is a sad indictment of a system that professes to respect human rights and show compassion to the less fortunate. It’s important to note that refugee camps were never designed to be permanent or semi-permanent residences.

The distinct lack of urgency shown when dealing with Persons of Concern (PoCs), and their economic development, highlights the disconnect between what people say they want to achieve and the reality on the ground.

Action not rhetoric

While the work and the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to care for the welfare of refugees is highly commendable, it appears to not be quite enough. The current approach does not effectively tackle the prevailing issue of integration. Whilst the UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees is an important framework, given the state of global conflicts we need more robust and radical actions to move away from containment in refugee camps and detention centres, which very often do not have external regulatory or malpractice supervisory bodies.

Unfortunately the Global Compact on Refugees appears to simply be a document of well-worded rhetoric that merely shifts responsibly and fails to outline concrete procedures and steps for the proper relocation or integration of refugees between member states. This lack of protection and duty towards some of the world’s most vulnerable people, particularly by Western countries who have the resources and necessary infrastructure, is nothing short of disappointing.

In the last decade, global forced displacement numbers have risen from 42.5 million to 82.4 million people. The UNHCR Global Trends Reports, between 2011-2020, show that the world is not succeeding at curtailing the conflicts and situations that cause these displacements. Therefore we should be creating workable, positive solutions. Humanity certainly does not lack the intelligence, the infrastructure or the financial resources – neither does the EU, who declare that their fundamental values are human dignity, equality, and respect for human rights.

Financial equality

Integration solutions for everyone – including refugees and PoCs – is not actually a far-fetched idea. For instance, blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies could be used to economically integrate refugees. We know that decentralized systems greatly minimise the possibility of corruption and human error. We know also that refugees are people who have skills, education and a sense of responsibility.

The Refugee Integration Organisation (RIO) is handing agency back to refugees in the Kakuma, Ampain and Krisan refugee camps, by giving them $1.50 daily in Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). This innovation takes the Celo cryptocurrency, housed on a decentralised anti-poverty system (ImpactMarket) and merged with USSD technology, to reach the most vulnerable refugees who may not have access to smartphones or the internet.

The first of its kind in the world, and in a scale-down merging of technologies aided by Kotani Pay in Kenya, as of August 2021, over $71,000 has been distributed to over 2,500 refugees. Delivered in local currencies and without the need to repay, long-term refugee camps are slowly becoming micro-economies or self-sustaining communities. These refugees are able to buy essentials such as PPE, sanitary pads, medicine, and they can even save money.

In order to dispel the myth that refugees are unbankable, dependent, and unskilled, RIO leaves the management of its UBI programmes in the hands of its beneficiary refugees, acting mainly as an overseeing body. Everything from disbursements and beneficiary selection to community relations management is handled by refugees themselves. The programme is rapidly expanding to the Middle East and has a CSR arm in India, responding to migrant needs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imagine a world in which the UNHCR, governments, and organizations such as the UN, actively collaborated and stood up for the welfare of refugees. What could be achieved in a world where forced displacement did not mean long-term residency in refugee camps and relegation to detention centres?

No matter who we are or where we live, the state of refugees, displaced people and PoCs should concern us all, not because it affects us directly, but because it is an issue of humanity.

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.

Also read: ‘I believe in democracy, that shouldn’t be a crime’ — Myanmar refugees hope for junta’s fall


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