Who Decides Who is Rohingya?

A computer can’t create identity, only verify it.

Yesterday, the UN released a damning report alleging the government of Myanmar is guilty of genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnicity living in the Rakhine state near the border with Bangladesh. The Rohingya have long been discriminated against and targeted for violence in Myanmar, which limits citizenship to certain ethnic groups. Huge numbers of Rohingya already live in exile, many recognized as refugees, in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. While the situation of the Rohingya has been bad for a long time, there is no doubt that things have gotten substantially worse since 2017.

The plight of the Rohingya evades solution. Despite multiple UNHCR attempts at resettlement, few countries wish to take Rohingya refugees. Many remember the Rohingya “boat people” crisis of 2015, as multiple countries refused entry to boats of stranded migrants, preferring to leave them to starve rather than risk creating a “pull factor” for more migrants.

The scale and duration of the suffering has given rise to a perennial feeling among human rights advocates that this simply cannot go on, that each fresh horror must be a breaking point that will lead to some sort of resolution. Desperate people often turn to inventive methods to at least provide some sort of solution. Enter: the Blockchain community.

What does blockchain have to do with the Rohingya?Because the Rohingya are stateless, those who have not been recognized as refugees in countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia have no ID, cannot access services even provided by the private sector, such as bank accounts or cell phone accounts, or even prove who they are to one another.

A bunch of startups, such as Humaniq, have begun exploring the idea that distributed ledger technology, often called blockchain, could help stateless people create their own, non-governmental registry that could serve as an ID and verification system. The Rohingya Project seeks to bring this technology to the Rohingya, setting up a group blockchain for all Rohingya people so they could, for example, transfer money or keep a record of their information. In some ways, the blockchain would serve as a quasi-government for otherwise stateless people.

Rohingya could use the blockchain to access some services that can be done by computers, like transferring and storing money, storing important personal information and creating a credit history. However, the problem with blockchain is that while it can store and verify someone’s identity, it cannot create that identity. An identity can only be created by people.

A ledger can record your identity, but it cannot create it.

One’s personal identity is the creation of multiple layers of connections with community, with family, with culture and with gender. These forms of identity are fluid, overlapping and changeable. It’s malleable and something over which you have a certain amount of control.

But your legal identity, your nationality, is given to you by others. It’s something over which you have almost no control. And human beings have long since decided that a legal identity can only be created by states. Only a government is vested with the ultimate authority to verify who you are as a matter of law. This function is part of the state’s sovereignty over every aspect of our lives. Ultimately, and despite the best efforts of internationalists and anarchists, we exist as legal persons with rights only because we are allowed to exist by governments. On paper, basic human rights are assured to everyone despite what a particular government may or may not think, but go and tell that to a stateless person. Make no mistake, you are a person only because your government says you are.

Checking to see if you are a person…

In a recent article in the online magazine Crypto-Disrupt about blockchain as a solution for the stateless Rohingya diaspora, David Cullinan makes a bleak admission about the limits of technology to solve problems created by the exclusive sovereignty of states over our lives. He writes that the Rohingya blockchain, which would allow access to some banking services, would be available to everyone who had “passed a test to verify that the person is genuine Rohingya.” What organization would design this test? How would it be administered? Would there be an appeals process for those denied access? Sure sounds to me a lot like the functions of a government ID agency.

As long as a verifiable identity gives rise to rights and access to valuable services, as long as it has a value, deciding who gets this valuable identity will require some sort of administrative body, some sort of government to pick the winners and losers, the ins and the outs. In short, a verifiable identity will always require a government. There’s no technological fix for that problem, unfortunately.

It may be old-fashioned, but it’s the only ID that really counts.

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