By Michael Cholod, Executive Director at the Peer Social Foundation. Additional contributions made by members of DIACC’s Outreach Expert Committee.
Imagine being lost in the woods or walking down a dusty road with only the clothes on your back. What would you do? Thankfully, most of us have never had to ask this question and we should consider ourselves lucky. Unfortunately, this is the plight facing over 100 million people on Earth right now, including 13 million Ukrainians who have been forced to run for their lives to escape the horrible atrocities of war.
As well, millions have fled their communities to find refuge in more stable parts of their country. These people are called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). And of course, millions of others have left their countries entirely and have become Refugees.
Convenience for us, Lifesaving for others
Most Refugees and IDPs did not have the time to properly prepare by gathering all their important documents such as passports, identity cards, driver’s licenses, and land titles or rental agreements. Fleeing your home may save your life, but fleeing without identity documents can lead to a very long wait – sometimes a decade or more – before your life is stable again. Imagine desperately trying to assert your identity to an overwhelmed volunteer who may not speak your language, hoping to convince them you actually exist.Your have lost your idenitty and you have to beg to be found.
Let’s say the conflict is over, you manage to convince an official who you are, and it’s finally time to go home. Upon return, you find that your house or rental flat has been destroyed, or some stranger is living there with a shiny new land title or rental agreement proclaiming they are the rightful owner.
It has taken ten years to re-establish your identity only to come home and find yourself homeless once again. The futility of living without an identity or without evidence of ownership or occupancy of your home, land, or property (HLP), has become a serious, global problem. UNHCR, IOM, NGOs like the Norwegian Refugee Council and western donor agencies like the World Bank and New America exist to help people in such need.Groups like the Global Protection Cluster have formed special entities to study the HLP problem. It turns out that Digital Identity is fundamental to the solution.
Digital Identity is essential
In Ukraine for example, there are 10 million citizens registered with the national digital identity program Diia. Diia, which translates to ‘Action’ in English, is a mobile application that allows any Ukrainian citizen with a bank account to create, store, and register their identity and property ownership documents with the government. Since the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, Diia even allows people to report war crimes and the movement of Russian troops from their mobile phone or computer.
Creating a digital record of your identity and property ownership or occupancy (HLP) makes you easier to find if you become undocumented since a digital copy of your life is safe with the government. Even if you must flee with only your smartphone or a set of credentials you’ve memorized, you can reclaim your identity and quickly file for compensation for damaged or destroyed HLP, and return home far sooner than those without digital credentials.
Don’t get me wrong, digital identity platforms like Diia are not a panacea. Not everyone is registered for Diia. Not everyone has a bank account, a computer, a smartphone, or Internet access, nor the skills to use them. Russia is occupying not just physical territory in Ukraine, they are also occupying Ukrainian cyberspace so it is important that digital identity solutions like Diia are secured against malicious actors bent on stealing people’s identity.
For most people, embracing digital identity might be the difference between being lost and found. That is reason enough for everyone to embrace digital identity as soon as possible.You never know when an explosion, hurricane, forest fire or rising water might wash you and all your possessions away leaving your family homeless. A digital lifeline can be far more than just convenient.