Establishing Identity for Displaced People

5 min readMay 23, 2018

Life can change in a heartbeat. A disaster such as a fire, earthquake or tornado or a displacement caused by war can force people to scramble from their homes, often with little or no possessions. What happens if these people don’t have their ID with them? How can they get their lives back in order without something as fundamental as an identity?

Recent refugee crises in the Middle East, Africa and other troubled spots throughout the world have also spurred an identity crisis. Not in an existential way, but in a paper and pixels way — national ID cards, passports, birth certificates, even a driver’s license or a cell phone. All of these can be left behind when fleeing in a hurry, causing problems for both the refugee and the host country offering refuge.

In many cases, identity documentation may not even exist at all. According to the World Bank, one billion people lack proof of their identity. The vast majority of them are demographically, geographically and economically at risk should a major catastrophe force them from their homes:

  • Nearly half are youth under the required age for a national ID
  • 81 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia
  • 63 percent are in lower-middle income economies
  • 28 percent are from low-income economies

Whether natural, man-made or human-instigated, a disaster of any form that displaces large numbers of people could create an enormous identity and humanitarian crisis for these people and the global community at large.

A lost or missing identity problem is not limited to war, unrest or the developing world. A sudden natural disaster like an earthquake, flood or wildfire can happen almost anywhere, forcing an immediate evacuation of a whole community or region. For example, Canada’s Fort McMurray fires in 2016 forced 90,000 to rush from their homes and hurricanes along the U.S. Gulf Coast often force millions to flee each season, such as 2017’s Hurricane Irma in Florida. In such cases, there’s sometimes barely enough time to escape with your life let alone spending time searching for identity documents.

Seeking immediate refuge from war or weather is a nightmare. Lacking the necessary documents to prove who you are to authorities in such a scenario compounds the problem, potentially denying access to vital services, funds, shelter or even entry to a safe haven country. Children and the elderly are at particular risk of abuse and exploitation.

In some cases, scammers will try to take advantage of these situations, staking a false claim to supplies, funds or other services from those in need. This diverts resources from those in real need and can hurt the credibility and public perception of the relief effort, causing aid organizations to struggle with donations and fundraising. Identity verification helps ensure that the people who need help are the ones getting it — like Trulioo’s efforts last year with the Red Cross in providing identity verification to the 50,000 people affected by wildfires in British Columbia.

More and more, technology is being utilized to alleviate some of the problems with identification for displaced people.


Every human is unique and our physical attributes can be used to identity our physical being. Biometric technology is constantly improving, with greater capabilities to read and interpret components of our bodies into an identity profile, such as facial recognition or a finger imprint.

A recent case of this being used on a mass scale in the East African nation of Uganda. Civil unrest in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo has resulted in nearly 1.5 million refugees pouring into Uganda, many of them lacking proper identification. This is a serious problem, but Uganda is turning to biometric technology to help.

Collaborating with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme, Uganda has created a biometric refugee identification program. Using fingerprint readers and retinal scanners, the goal is to create identity profiles for refugees and collect relevant data so that services and resources can be better deployed, relieving stresses for both the refugee and the host communities. While Uganda’s is the largest the UNHCR has rolled out, similar programs are also in use in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Globally, nearly 5 million refugees have been identified and registered using the UNHCR system.


With some 5 billion devices in use around the world, mobile technology has become ubiquitous. In some parts of the world and in some demographic circles, a mobile device is more prevalent than an identity document — mobile ownership is particularly strong in developing economies and with young people. That represents a new and innovative way to validate individual identities around the world. The GSMA has been researching ways mobile can be leveraged for refugee and displaced populations.

Mobile has enormous potential for enabling money transfers and remittances for migrant and displaced peoples, especially in times of crises such as an evacuation or exodus. Humanitarian and logistical issues aside, money transfers to displaced people are a challenge because of Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations. Financial service providers must meet KYC requirements, meaning the vetting and verification of identities. A displaced person without documentation may experience difficulties receiving access to much-needed funds and services, but armed with a cell phone, their mobile network operator (MNO) can help offer next-gen solutions for validating their identity. Services like Trulioo’s recently launched Mobile ID solution offer a method to verify identities and help financial service providers comply with KYC regulations.


Blockchain systems are being used to help refugees build their identities. Refugees entering a UNHCR camp, for example, are issued documentation but it isn’t well tracked after leaving the camp. Adding this information to a blockchain is helping to create a record, proving the refugee’s identity as the move from one place to another with the potential to be used to build a stronger digital identity even if the relocate to a new country.

The applications for this go beyond helping refugees. Blockchain for Change, a startup in New York City, is an example of a company using blockchain technology to create digital identities for the city’s homeless population, allowing them to gain access to services ranging from shelters to food to finances and more. Creating and tracking the digital interactions of the homeless is helping to build an identity profile that in turn helps them with accessing services and, hopefully, improve their life’s situation.

An identity is essential for nearly everything needed in a crisis — securing shelter, accessing services, crossing borders, and receiving funds. These are challenging enough when you’re distressed by displacement; they’re exponentially so when you don’t have an identity.

For institutions dealing with displaced individuals, procedures to quickly and securely handle identification goes a long way to helping them start to rebuild their lives. For displaced persons, securing and verifying their individual identity is a crucial key to the vital services they need to survive and ultimately succeed in the aftermath of a calamity. And thanks to new technology applications, a lost or thin-file identity need not be an impenetrable barrier when managing a natural or humanitarian crisis.




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