We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis of migration due to a combination of often interdependent factors such as climate change, famine, protracted conflict and persistent inequality and poverty. According to the UNCHR Global Trends 2017 report, over 70 million people are displaced worldwide because of climate change, war and poverty – on a par with World War 2. This includes 40 million internally displaced people (IDPs), 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers. 10 million people have no nationality and face a lifetime of inequity and persecution. While most countries are holding displaced persons, this is not an internationally balanced picture, with 85% of the world’s refugees hosted in countries in developing regions.

The rapid rate of increase in displacement – Over the past two decades, the global population of forcibly displaced people has almost doubled from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016 – is only set to increase. While predictions for future growth varies, they virtually all expect an increase with estimates ranging from several hundred million to a billion within a generation. The Environmental Justice Fund, for example, has estimated that nearly 10% of the world’s population is at risk from displacement by climate change alone; with predictions of 150 million climate displaced persons by 2050.

SDG 16 – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels


This shift in both the geographies and scale of demand is matched by a long-term incapacity to find long-term solutions. In a current institutional response where 1.2 million refugees needed resettlement in 2017, yet UNHCR submitted 75,200 refugees, a 54% drop compared with 2016, leaving a 94% gap between needs and actual resettlement places for the year.

The lack of effective systemic response to the rise of displaced people resulted in a situation where people cannot access water, sanitation, healthcare, education – let alone the financial services and opportunities that allow them to live independent lives. This is due to a mixture of identification challenges – where refugees are either unable to access such opportunities because they are unable to identify themselves to the satisfaction of service providers or they are unwilling to do so because of the privacy and security risks associated with such disclosure – and intentional political and bureaucratic obstacles. As a result, as James C. Hathaway, Director of the Refugee and Asylum Law Program at the University of Michigan states, “most refugees are maintained by an international organization. And most refugees are emphatically not allowed to provide for their own needs” 1

This in turn, creates a toxic environment where refugees lose the ability to inject their life with meaning, and citizens of the host country end up resentful of refugees. Furthermore, refugees are experiencing multiple psychological challenges including (but not limited to) trauma, grief, longing, no sense of belonging, hopelessness, fear, anger. Clearly in a current incumbent ‘solution’ 80% of refugees have stayed stuck in limbo for at least 5 years in camps – something needs to change.


Figure 2 demonstrates the system mapping exercise for the inter-dependencies among the stakeholders for the challenge “the rise of the displaced people”. One big question that emerges from the system mapping is

‘How might we enable displaced peoples to immediately access essential services upon arrival in a new location?’


Digitalization has fundamentally changed our understanding of borders, and our approaches to providing legitimacy and basic services. The task for us now is to accelerate and scale them in a systematic way, so that we have a hope of tackling the challenge.

However, there are large technical, ethical and procedural obstacles standing in the way of deploying digitalization effectively (e.g. data interoperability, security and privacy concerns) – solving these would have impacts across the world.

Many innovative start-ups are looking at unlocking services for displaced persons. While there are ethical and procedural issues around some of their business models, they mostly use digital technologies to widen access, when host countries are not providing them. There are tens, if not hundreds, of such innovative start-ups looking at topics like:

  • Building Blocks, Jordan: Helps the World Food Programme (WFP) distribute cash-for-food aid to over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan by using an adaptation of block-chain technologies.
  • Iryo and Walk with Me, Middle East: Using block-chain technology to provide a modern, distributed electronic health record system to refugee camps in the Middle East.
  • DRC Step Up a new digital platform designed to link Syrian refugees with potential employers worldwide;
  • Rohingya Project uses block-chain technology to provide access to finance to people in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile E-residency program in Estonia presents a government-issued digital ID available to anyone in the world, which enables people to start and run remotely global business in a trusted EU environment, building Estonia’s tech capacity.

Figure 2. System map for the grand challenge “the rise of displaced people”


While these innovations are helping to prototype a future response, they are currently fragmented, disconnected, grant- driven – sitting in their discrete siloes with limited chance of scaling. This is not merely an organizational question, with the deployment of each new digitalisation throwing up engineering (e.g. how to overcome data interoperability) and ethical obstacles (e.g. how to control data privacy, how to ensure participation of all etc.). Therefore, we urgently need to invest in systems change. With one billion people lacking identity, solving these issues would have impacts across the world.

Source: Dark Matter Labs (2018). Contribution to UNDP SDG Impact Accelerator report.


  1. James C. Hathaway (2016). A global solution to a global refugee crisis.
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