The Invisible Man of the Visible World: How Blockchain Could Offer New Hope to Stateless Rohingya

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On 16th April 2020, the Malaysian Navy intercepted a ship packed with an estimated 200 Rohingya refugees who had taken a long and precarious voyage. The Navy prevented the ship from approaching the shore; and while that boat’s whereabouts are now unknown, another vessel loaded with refugees was eventually located by the Bangladeshi coast guard.. 

From squalid camps in Bangladesh these refugees had traveled in search of safety.  Instead, dozens found only death.

A coast guard spokesman told The Guardian that “They were at sea for about two months and were starving.”

The Malaysian authorities later justified their actions on public health grounds, stating that the country was already stressed by the Covid-19 pandemic beyond its capacity to assist.

Human rights activists were less convinced, and interpreted this as a signal that a country considered to be more welcoming toward the Rohingya was toughening its stance.

These incidents became a focus for an online campaign by agitated Malaysians against the Rohingya population their country is hosting. A petition on Change.org to deport the Rohingya went viral and gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures in days, although it was then removed by the platform for promoting hate speech. A population that was already on the social margins was now being pushed beyond the edge.

Of course, to the Rohingya people, this particular story is tragically familiar. Over recent years they have become known as the “the world’s persecuted minority”. From their native country of Myanmar, to the various countries that now host their diaspora, the Rohingya have been on the sidelines of society for decades, living an almost invisible existence as an unwanted people. 

Against this bleak backdrop, it may be easy to give in to despair. Yet it is precisely because of the struggle, because of the tantalizing hope that states and institutions will bring about some revival of the Rohingya, that an initiative has arisen which investigates the potential of technology to change their fate. 

The Rohingya Project is a grassroots effort originating from the Rohingya community that seeks to employ blockchain technology to address their stateless situation.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an Indo-Arayan people who trace their roots back centuries to their homeland of Arakan, now called the Rakhine state in Myanmar. 

At the time when Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, Rohingya were largely treated as equal citizens alongside the rest of the Burmese population, and were represented in the civil service and legislature. However, as the years progressed, the Rohingya found themselves increasingly sidelined from the affairs of the state and socially marginalized. When the Burmese Army staged a coup in 1982, the Rohingya were delisted as an official ethnicity by the state in a new citizenship law. Essentially, their citizenship was removed and they were rendered stateless. 

Under Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a “stateless person” is someone who is not classified as a national by any state under its law. 

The Rohingya therefore have two strikes against them: they are both refugees forced out of their homeland, and they are stateless — without any nationality they can claim. In the words of Anis, 28, a Rohingya refugee who has been in Malaysia since 2014:

“Though I exist in the world my existence [is] not recognized by the world. I am the invisible man of the visible world.” 

Although conflicts between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority have persisted since the 1982 coup, in 2016 the Myanmar government intensified a genocidal campaign described by then-British Prime Minister Theresa May and ex-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “ethnic cleansing”, which has displaced almost half of the Rohingya population from their ancestral homeland. Now, there are an estimated 3.5 million Rohingya scattered across the region, dispersed throughout Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. They live largely in the shadows in these host societies. 

A Stateless Existence

Naeem is a 22-year old Rohingya who has dreams of becoming the first animator in his people’s history. Born in Saudi Arabia, the reality of being stateless hit him in childhood. After completing sixth grade in a charity school, he approached a government school to ask for admission. 

“When I got there with my elder brother they were asking [for] an ID which we don’t have, and they were saying this is the system and we cannot do anything. After that we [went] back home without any hope”. 

The lack of an identity became a hurdle that was too tall to overcome. “I started to realize how much difficulties and trouble that I face because of this ID; many things were forbidden for us like going to school, hospital, and many more. You can say I never lived a normal life like other kids do.”

Outside of those fortunate few who are able to apply for a UNHCR card (the international standard identification is named for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) or somehow gain a fake passport, the vast majority of the Rohingya lack any form of legal identification, such as a birth certificate.  This represents an ever-present barrier to opening a bank account, registering in a school, and seeking healthcare. It almost guarantees that the Rohingya will remain at the bottom rung of any society that agrees to host them.

Even with a UNHCR card, there is little certainty that Rohingya and other refugees will get access to services. “Being a refugee in Malaysia with [a] UNHCR card, I have been denied more than once from getting medical access in some hospital due to no proper document,” says Omar, a 29-year old Rohingya. He aspires to be a journalist and tries to document the human rights crimes of the Burmese government as a member of a small team of Rohingya broadcasting on YouTube.

Despite being one of the very few Rohingya who is well-versed in English, he experiences the same day-to-day difficulties as his compatriots. “Last year [in] May I went to Cheras Hospital to register for my wife to deliver [a] baby but they didn’t accept my registration with UNHCR card. If I register with them, I need to pay a big amount of fees like Ringgit 5,000 [approximately USD $1,000] only for registration. It was not totally possible for me to give that huge amount. I was denied from there.”

Seeking a Solution

This issue of identity has long been one that has troubled Muhammad Noor. He is one of those rare Rohingya who managed to escape his stateless beginnings and get an education and career. With a background in IT, his passion is developing innovation solutions that can address the Rohingya crisis. 

When the violence against the Rohingya erupted in 2012, Noor founded the first Rohingya satellite television station to offer primary reporting on the human rights crimes happening on the ground in Rakhine. In Malaysia, Noor set up the Rohingya Football Club, which represents a quasi-national football team, and which is set to play in the next CONIFA World Cup for stateless and marginalized people. Noor has also been instrumental in digitizing the Rohingya script, and in promoting its acceptance by Unicode, the international standard for computer characters and symbols.

But the issues of identity and exclusion remain the most pressing. The initial idea of exploring blockchain to address these problems came through connecting with a Malaysian-based equity crowdfunding agency in mid-2017. The idea gained momentum and in December 2017, the Rohingya Project was launched in Kuala Lumpur. 

As co-founder, Noor’s goal was for the Rohingya Project to work towards building an economic foundation for his people. The Project stated that the initiative would grant a digital identity to allow Rohingya to access a range of financial solutions on a dedicated platform.

Given that two of the biggest stories of 2017 were the Rohingya genocide and the rise of Bitcoin, it was unsurprising that the launch of Rohingya Project received a flurry of international attention in the press upon launch, focused almost exclusively on the digital identity aspects of the initiative.

A Broad Vision

The Rohingya Project is founded on a vision of creating a digital ecosystem which Rohingya can use to expand the range of financial and social inclusion options available to them in their host societies.

It is built on the understanding that the Rohingya may never return home; and at the same time will never be given citizenship in the countries to which they escaped.

The need for digital solutions becomes apparent when conventional avenues are closed to these refugees. This is especially true when it comes to the banking sector. “I desperately wanted to open an account a few years back as it was very risky to carry all the money along with me,” explains Anis. “I had a UNHCR card so I went to a local bank to discuss whether I can open a savings account or not. I was explained to by the bank officer that with UNHCR ID I can’t open a bank account there.”

Without a banking option, Anis is forced to depend almost entirely on cash transactions, which limits his ability to send or receive remittances from family abroad.

The Rohingya Project is not aiming for a tech utopia in which all Rohingya can become digital citizens and replace the difficulties in their lives with virtual options. Rather, it looks to give Rohingya, especially the younger generation, an easy access point to resources, some of which are offered locally and others transnationally. This starts with a downloadable e-wallet, given that most stateless Rohingya still possess smartphones. The e-wallet will host native and third party apps offering services including digital assets, online education and crowdfunding.

Since its inception, the Rohingya Project has built an impressive list of partners and advisors, from blockchain technology firms to UN agencies and international universities. These partners are critical in providing the project infrastructure support and advisory on data privacy/protocols as the project seeks to lay the groundwork for a series of pilot projects showcasing the empowerment potential of blockchain.

Digital Identity as Proof of Existence

The Rohingya Project uses digital identity to recognize the individual’s origin and allow them to gain access to services. It is not meant to be a competitive identity card to existing state-based identity systems, but a digital “proof of existence”.

A key component of the digital identity system is that it needs to be based on self-sovereign principles. In the offline world we have a set of unique identifiers such as birth date, nationality and academic qualifications that are employed in various transactions.

A self-sovereign identity should allow the user the same freedom to control what credentials they want to share with third parties in order to verify their own identity. The personal data control stays with the individual user, rather than a centralized administrator.

However, a digital identity is not an end, but a means. Without connecting the identity to services of value, it remains a mere novelty. The Rohingya Project’s immediate goals are to test and scale pilot applications that cater to the specific needs of the Rohingya. Eventually, the options on the platform will be expanded to cover basic supplementary social services such as education and healthcare.

The first application is a crypto token reward system called the R-Coin. Run on a private Ethereum blockchain, the R-Coin is not a currency or monetary device. Rather, each R-Coin in the e-wallet represents one hour of community service work performed by refugees in the informal economy.

In Malaysia, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are prohibited from employment. Many instead spend their time engaged in volunteer work to help their communities, such as teaching, aid distribution and interpreting. The R-Coin functions as a reward point system to track these invisible efforts and allow the refugees to redeem their R-Coins for sponsored prizes based on reaching a level of meritorious service. 

The R-Coin pilot was conducted last December with Rohingya and other refugees, with support from UNHCR, and a report of the results has been publicly disseminated.

Along with the R-Coin, the project is aiming to launch the Rohingya Historical Archive later this year. The archive is a digital collection of vital documents related to Rohingya ancestry and heritage that are at risk of being lost or destroyed. These include documents such as property titles, civil service certificates and cultural artifacts which will be scanned, stored and linked to a blockchain-based inventory. At the ongoing genocide trial in which the Myanmar government is a defendant, and which was brought before the International Court of Justice at the Hague by the nation of Gambia, Myanmar was ordered to “take all measures within its power” to protect the Rohingya; however, in the absence of meaningful enforcement, these documents represent precious — possibly unique — storage preservation of evidence and history. 

A Way Forward

Blockchain is increasingly noted as the next logical step to e-governance, but a chasm separates the Rohingya from the rest of the world. There is no magic solution to the humanitarian disaster at present, and without some intervention the decades to come look no less grim. “It’s very unfortunate to be stateless in this modern century. If you don’t have a state, you’re not equal to [other] humans because you are barred [from] getting access to all facilities,” states Omar.

The project may be a small step in a long-term effort to see if the next generation of Rohingya can have a share of the digital future that awaits.

“Many people [are] trying to help Rohingya through giving food and other resources; after they’re done the Rohingya go back to their usual life which is suffering, feeling hungry and so on.  Why [is] that?  Because giving food is a temporary solution,” says Naeem.

“For the first time the Rohingya Project came up with the solution that most of the Rohingya needed, which is getting into the system.”

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