In a successful implementation of its pledge at the Global Refugee Forum, Estonia has provided an expert on digital identity to further UNHCR’s efforts in digital transformation.
South Sudanese refugee Kiden Agnes and her son Gale Michael are registered at Imvepi settlement in Terego, Uganda, during the COVID-19 pandemic. © UNHCR/Esther Ruth Mbabazi
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, had to rapidly adapt its services to ensure that refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons could continue to access assistance and protection services despite the emerging challenges and restrictions.
Face-to-face aid distribution and service delivery rapidly had to be substituted with or complemented by digital solutions – efforts which UNHCR’s Executive Committee has recently advised need to be further explored. However, the shift to more digital solutions poses the challenge of how to securely and efficiently verify and authenticate a person’s identity online.
“Having a trusted, robust and secure digital identity is a necessary enabler to access online digital services – whether that is UNHCR’s services, eGovernment or online banking,” says Nicholas Oakeshott, UNHCR’s Senior Registration and Identity Management Officer, working on this challenge.
UNHCR’s Digital Identity Unit was set up in 2020 as part of the organization’s new Global Data Service, implementing UNHCR’s Data Transformation Strategy. The Unit aims to increase access to robust, trusted and secure digital identity among forcibly displaced and stateless persons.
Over the past year, UNHCR consulted refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons in 12 countries about the core digital services they wished to access. These ranged from online updates on their cases to accessing digital cash assistance and making job applications.
In Jordan, for example, UNHCR has over several years used cash-based interventions as a way to provide assistance to refugees in a dignified manner. Through the use of digital solutions, refugees now receive necessary assistance in a way which allows for refugees to be included in the local economy and themselves decide on spending priorities.
Through strengthened and trusted digital identity systems, more refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons will be able to securely access the online services that can help them improve and facilitate their everyday lives.
During the first ever Global Refugee Forum in 2019, Estonia made a vital commitment and pledged to help UNHCR with the digital transformation of the humanitarian assistance, protection and solutions. In a successful implementation of the pledge, Rico-Christhopher Adigazalov joined UNHCR’s Digital Identity Unit in February 2020 as an Estonian secondee and Senior Digital Identity Expert.
Over the course of the past three decades, Estonia has taken a leading position globally in digital solutions and e-governance. Estonia has developed digital systems which make it possible for citizens to securely access rights and public services online, including health care services, banking and voting in elections. Through mapping and analyzing trends in usage, Estonia has been able to better understand the public’s needs and plan ahead.
It is the experience from Estonia that Rico-Christhopher Adigazalov is now bringing to UNHCR and, ultimately with UNHCR’s next digital steps, will be making an impact in the daily lives of the forcibly displaced.
“In Estonia, once refugees and asylum-seekers are enrolled in the national identification system, they have the option to apply for a digital ID which allows them to access different e-services. Refugees have equal access to e-services as citizens. This can really improve the quality of life,” he explains.
During his secondment, Rico-Christhopher Adigazalov has developed a series of workshops on digital solutions to provide an opportunity for learning and exchange between UNHCR and Estonian experts. Through the workshop series, UNHCR experts have discussed ideas with Estonian experts on issues including e-governance and data privacy and protection. The Estonian experts have benefitted by learning more about UNHCR’s humanitarian efforts and current uses of digital technology.
“Estonia is globally recognized for its success in e-governance but we are not experts in using technology to solve the humanitarian issues – for that, the leading organization is UNHCR, which provides the guidance and principles and has the forward-looking view of what could be done,” Rico-Christhopher Adigazalov explains. “This can be done best together.”
From UNHCR’s perspective, the cooperation with Estonia is particularly valuable on four specific areas, explains Nicholas Oakeshott:
For refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons, access to a secure digital ID has not only been important for accessing services during COVID-19, but can also provide an opportunity to regain self-reliance, be financially included and explore new livelihoods and opportunities. With Estonian support, UNHCR continues to strengthen digital solutions to ensure that refugees receive protection and support as well as opportunities to thrive.