LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Stuck in a former Dutch prison housing asylum seekers, Syrian software trainer Tey el-Rjula conjured up an idea to ensure that people who lose their identity documents while fleeing war or persecution do not become “invisible”.
Using blockchain technology, he devised an platform for people to store vital information about themselves, such as nationality and qualifications, so they can prove their identities to authorities in new countries where they settle.
“Today identities need to be not only be portable, but private and secure - that is what we do,” said el-Rjula who in 2016 founded Tykn, which creates secure, digital identities to help refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on the move.
Without the right paperwork, it is hard to travel via legal channels, prove family ties or entitlement to refugee status and increases the risk of exploitation, trafficking, statelessness, detention and denial of access to public services.
Tykn is one of a wave of social entrepreneurs - who aim to do good, as well as make profit – seeking to help 68.5 million people who the United Nations says are forcibly displaced worldwide by persecution, conflict and violence.
Businesses range from a Malaysian caterer, PichaEats, that employs refugee chefs, and SEP Jordan, which hires refugees to make embroidery to a scheme to connect migrants and refugees in Europe with local communities, called Speak.
Some of the migrants that el-Rjula met in the Dutch centers - where he lived from 2014 to 2016 while his own asylum claim was processed - fled home so quickly they did not have time to pack identity documents or lost them on the way.
“I know one guy who just grabbed his (framed) university degree from the wall and left,” he said.
“Many of the refugees who came lost their documents at sea. Many of them, the documents were confiscated by the smugglers.”
This made it more difficult for Dutch authorities to process migrants’ claims for asylum and support, leaving them stuck in the centers, which el-Rjula described as “more than gloomy”.
The World Bank estimates 1 billion people around the world struggle to prove who they are, making it hard to access essential services like opening a bank account or even getting a mobile phone, which can trap them in poverty.
Tykn’s decentralized database and app acts as a digital wallet so refugees have verified identities when applying for housing or work or starting businesses in their new homelands.
El-Rjula is pitching Tykn to international charities and governments across Europe and the Middle East so that they can process refugees more easily when they arrive in camps.
Raising capital - always a challenge for entrepreneurs - is even harder for migrants, particularly if their asylum claim is pending, their passport has expired - as el-Rjula’s had - or their nationality bars them from entering certain countries.
But he made a breakthrough in May when he won $50,000 from Chivas Venture, a social enterprise competition, followed by an injection of 1.2 million euros ($1.34 million) from a Dutch tech entrepreneur, which will be used to grow his team of five.
As social entrepreneurs, a growing number are rebuilding their own lives, rather than relying on handouts, said Manyang Reath Kher, one of thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” who were uprooted by civil war and resettled in the United States.
Reath Kher founded 734 Coffee in Virginia in 2016, which imports coffee from farmers who employ refugees in Ethiopia and South Sudan, with 80% of profits paying scholarships for young people in refugee camps.
Reath Kher was three years old when he fled his village in Sudan after it was attacked, and lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia for 13 years - the coordinates of which inspired the name of his business.
“I don’t want people to see refugees as a charity, like they are nobody,” he said, adding that he hopes his business will “help people help themselves”.
Reath Kher received training from Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship in California, which helped him raise capital from a wider circle than just his friends, though he would not disclose the sum.
Tim Docking of Refugee Investment Network (RIN), a U.S non-profit that also assisted 734 Coffee, said one of the key hurdles they seek to address is proving to investors, who might view refugees as risky prospects, they are creditworthy.
The growing popularity of “impact investment” - where investors seek social and environmental benefits alongside financial returns – could be a boon for social enterprises that help refugees and migrants, said Docking, head of RIN.
“This is a very entrepreneurial, hardworking, gritty group of folks who want to work, versus get handouts, and need investment capital to get going,” he said.
RIN has steered investors to commit $200 million of capital to businesses that help, or are led or founded by, refugees since 2018, and aims to reach $2 billion by 2030, he said.
But “refugee lens” investing is still a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the wider investment industry, worth $76 trillion in 2018, according to Boston Consulting Group.
These businesses need technical, not just financial, support, said Zamira Abbasova, a mentor for The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network, a British social enterprise that helps refugees start businesses.
“Investors need to understand they need to give continued support for these people, they can’t just give the money and expect a return,” said.
She said many refugee entrepreneurs may have experienced trauma as a result of being displaced, which investors have to be sensitive to.
“It requires a lot of empathy and understanding about where they came from,” said Abbasova, a refugee from Armenia.
“You are not just investing into their business. You are investing into their life ... You are investing in their confidence so they stand up and believe in themselves, rather than be dependent on the system.”
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Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories