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Innovative solutions to empower refugees with digital identity  

UNHCR 2015/ S.A. Jefferies / A Sudanese father and refugee provides biometrics during registration in Goz Amir camp, Chad.

UNHCR 2015/ S.A. Jefferies / A Sudanese father and refugee provides biometrics during registration in Goz Amir camp, Chad.

New York, September 21 – On the occasion of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit held in New York, Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements joined the World Bank, the World Food Program, and Mastercard in a panel to discuss “Unlocking the Potential of Digital Identity,” in particular how new technology can provide refugees with secure digital identity to better access vital services.  

Many of the systems and processes used today for humanitarian purposes were designed decades ago, and these outdated tools and platforms are being rethought given recent advances in technology.

The World Bank has estimated that 1.1 billion persons – more than 20 per cent of the human population – lack proof of legal identity. This prevents them from exercising their fundamental rights, from accessing many services including health and education as well as engaging in economic activities.

The lack of identity documents is most keenly felt by those living in developing countries, including many refugees and stateless persons.

“Digital Identity should be offered to every refugee and forcibly displaced person to establish and maintain a legal identity,” the Deputy High Commissioner noted. “This would empower them, giving them control over their own data and providing access to services and economic opportunities they would not have otherwise,” she explained.

UNHCR has over many decades built strong expertise, processes and tools for registration and identity management in the context of forced displacement, and is now leveraging digital technology and knowledge to provide a legal digital identity for refugees.

In partnership with among others the World Bank’s ID4D initiative, the World Food Program, the Open Society Foundations, and the ID2020 Alliance, UNHCR is examining ways a portable digital identity system could empower any refugee or stateless person who has access to a computer or smart phone.

To make this initiative a reality, UNHCR is catalyzing new partnerships and alliances, and open discussions with governments, civil society and private stakeholders to define the vision and potential development of a digital identity system.

“We must engage in a comprehensive dialogue on data security and integrity,” Ms. Clements noted, “on a regulatory framework that protects the rights of refugees and put them and other displaced persons on an equal footing with other citizens when it comes to seizing opportunities offered in this new digital age.”

Identity data and services should first and foremost make a difference in the lives of refugees by providing access to banks, loans, and education opportunities. At the same time, their personal data must be secure.

A longer-term objective is meeting goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which sets out the ambitious target of providing legal identity for all, including birth registration.

And while technological progress is happening, the greatest challenge may be in securing the acceptance by states and businesses of a digital identity of those who need it the most – undocumented refugees and stateless persons.

By Charlotte Arnaud, Communications Officer, DPSM

For more information please see:

World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development