The Syrian refugee crisis continues this week as the world confronts what the United Nations calls "the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War."
“Refugees from Syria are now the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation with over 4.08 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the larger region.”
- European Commission - Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection
By mid-2014, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that 10.8 million of Syria's 22 million population were affected by the conflict, and are in need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge within Syria, or leaving the country altogether.
To escape the violence, Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, while thousands more have escaped to the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, North Africa and Europe. However, according to the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, countries bordering Syria are “approaching a dangerous saturation point.”
In response to the world's escalating refugee crises, members of a decentralized organization incorporated on the Bitcoin blockchain, Bitnation, have been working on its new Humanitarian Aid program.
“Bitnation Refugee Emergency Response (BRER) is a Humanitarian Aid Project of Bitnation to facilitate and provide Emergency Services and Humanitarian Aid to refugees during the European Refugee Crisis of September 2015.”
Bitnation's CEO and Founder, Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, is no stranger to the problems faced by refugees, her father claimed asylum in Sweden. “I’ve had asylum seekers living in my home while waiting for papers, etc. Not to mention, I’m from a family of refugees myself,” Tarkowski Tempelhof explained.
The CEO also has professional experience with the situation on the ground, an ex-military contractor with extensive experience helping international aid workers, politicians, and journalists move in and out of dangerous places. Helping obtain visas, security, transportation, and other vital services was all part of her previous job as a contractor in Afghanistan, Libya, and Egypt, long before founding Bitnation.
“I used to work in conflict zones, so since that time I have many friends and former employees fleeing to Europe and US, trying to get political asylum.”
- Tarkowski Tempelhof, Bitnation CEO and Founder
The current refugee crisis has left countless victims without a home, identification, or access to even the most basic banking services. Opening a bank account is nearly impossible for people in these situations, and having someone send them some funds in any form is extremely challenging.
Tarkowski Tempelhof also expressed that BRER's aim is to help all refugees, without restrictions.
"While others wanted to ask 'country of arrival' and 'city of origin', I was very militant on excluding those questions, because I knew it would get hundreds of thousands of people in trouble."
- Tarkowski Tempelhof
The BE-ID is a rudimentary emergency identification card, based on blockchain technology, that is available to anyone, including individuals who cannot obtain other forms of ID. Issued by no government, refugees apply online and these IDs are issued as soon as the application form is filled out.
“It works like a mini ‘web-of-trust’ where family members have to verify being each others family members through private/ public key cryptography. Proving family relations can make it more easy to reunite with your children, parents, or siblings who may be in different locations, displaced in other countries.”
While decentralized IDs are very useful, Tarkowski Tempelhof suspects that Bitnation’s Visa cards could be of the most use to refugees in their day-to-day life.
These debit cards are available to anyone, can be loaded using bitcoins, and used through the traditional Visa card network.
Using Bitcoin technology to load the card electronically allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to help the holder with financial assistance, and even allows private donations if a Bitcoin address is posted online somewhere. Once loaded, the card can be used like a normal Visa card, to withdraw fiat cash at ATMs or be used to pay for goods and services, without needing to go to a bank.
“We would like to turn it into a form of rudimentary ‘basic income’ where people can just donate BTC directly to people > to the cards - and they can use it to pay for day-to-day necessities, rather than relying on aid organizations for food donations and the likes. It would give people some sense of human dignity, even while in a difficult situation.”
- Tarkowski Tempelhof
For refugees, signing up for a Bitnation Visa card is free, but the card itself is a rebranded E-Coin bitcoin card, costing Bitnation 12€. The organisation is actively seeking donations to cover this expense, and extra donations will be added to the balance on the cards.
Since the launch of the program, in September, there have been approximately 200 applications received for Bitnation Visa cards. The program is currently only marketed through Bitnation's ambassador network, a group of volunteers around the world who sign up to represent Bitnation in their area. Unfortunately, before any real marketing can begin for the Visa card program, many rules and regulations must be complied with, slowing down the progress of getting these cards in the hands of people who need them.
While Bitnation IDs are issued as soon as the application is received, 1000 debit cards need funding through donations before they can be issued, “because of all the bureaucracy involved,” Tarkowski Tempelhof explained.
“We're already compliant with the EU regulations on ID issuance, but we're still working on the UN part of it.”
- Tarkowski Tempelhof
There is another avenue for those who wish to help the organisation, donating time and skills. The IDs and their website depend on programmers donating their time to the project, which is a resource that has been drying up recently. As Tarkowski Tempelhof told us, “more JS devs would help speed the progress up tremendously.”
To help refugees understand the usefulness of bitcoin, and the tools that are being provided, Tarkowski Tempelhof and the Bitnation ambassadors plan to organize workshops in refugee camps coverings topics such as Bitcoin, basic communication encryption, Bitnation IDs, the debit cards, and even online maps.
This next step in educating refugees is “truly one of our greatest challenges,” stated Tarkowski Tempelhof, and from someone who recently spent a month in Ghana teaching locals how to use the blockchain as a land title registry, such a statement should not be taken lightly.
The United Nations is actively urging all world leaders to help. However, at the 70th session of the General Assembly earlier this week, Mr. Ban stated that “we are not receiving enough money to save enough lives” and clarified their financial situation with the memorable phrase: “the global humanitarian system is not broken; it is broke.” He further specified that the UN has only half of what they need to help the people of Iraq, South Sudan, and Yemen – and just a third for Syria.
“Suffering today is at heights not seen in a generation. One hundred million people require immediate humanitarian assistance. At least 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes or their countries. The United Nations has asked for nearly $20 billion to meet this year’s needs – six times the level of a decade ago.”
- Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General
The European Union and its Member States are collectively leading the international response, having already donated more than €4.2 billion for refugee relief and recovery assistance, with €200 million more recently announced. The extra humanitarian assistance will address the “needs inside Syria and Iraq, as well as the needs of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries”.
“The first priority today is and must be addressing the refugee crisis. The decision to relocate 160,000 people from the most affected Member States is a historic first and a genuine, laudable expression of European solidarity. It cannot be the end of the story, however. It is time for further, bold, determined and concerted action by the European Union, by its institutions and by all its Member States."
- Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
Tarkowski Tempelhof's goal mirrors that of the United Nations and the European Union, to not only save lives but to help refugees find stability and happiness. “Our aim is not just to keep people alive, but to give them a life -- a decent life,” stated Mr. Ban.
“Today, we are more connected than ever, better informed than ever, and have better tools than ever. The recipes for positive change are on the table; the ingredients for success are in our hands... Let’s work together to make this world better for all, where everybody can live with dignity and prosperity.”
- Ban Ki-moon
BitNation is attempting to do exactly this, use new tools and connections, “We hope using the Blockchain in Emergency Response situations like this crisis will help show the world how Open Source innovation can change how we are able to resolve, not just respond to, Global needs,” Bitnation.