Being a refugee in the digital age


Photo credit: ©UNHCR /Michele Sibiloni

When UNHCR mobilizes for a refugee crisis, there are clear priorities: Protection, food, water, shelter and registration. Why registration? Is that important? Is it not a waste of resources, some bureaucratic red tape?

This is a privileged Western view. In a crisis, registration has a very important double purpose: It is the basis for planning, to estimate needs, to make sure that the homeless get to their tents and the sick are treated – and not the other way around.

However, there is more to it. Every person in an industrialized country has multiple options for self-identification: ID card, passport, driver’s license, credit card, sometimes even the Netflix account. And nearly every day more options are added to our smartphones. All this, we take for granted.

This is an unattainable privilege for a billion people on earth. A billion! When refugees newly arrive at a sanctuary, they often insist on being registered. Because they know from experience that when you are registered, you have a name, can apply for asylum, and receive services from both, government and aid agencies. Refugees understand very well the advantages, such as residency, access to water and food, to medical assistance and maybe even to education. It is a chance to become visible, not to be ignored or pushed aside.

In the digital age, identification does no longer work with pen and paper. It is easier now, more reliable, more international – it is digital. And it is the best possible way to organize protection and assistance for millions of people in need living in the global south. People who are often desperately in need of immediate help. At this conference, we want to showcase what it means to be a refugee in the digital age. No refugee is spared of displacement because of new and digital technologies. But millions of vulnerable people, and the aid workers supporting them, will benefit from them and receive assistance in a more effective and dignified manner. We want digital identity to empower people.

At re:publica 18 UNHCR, UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe and IBM will showcase how digital solutions can be used effectively and responsibly in humanitarian situations. We invite you to visit our tent and participate in our program and discussions.

This is a guest article of our current partner UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe.