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The Front Page of Global Fintech

The largest fintech community in the world. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on the latest in news opinions, and all things financial technology.

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Signals: Harnessing fintech for refugee empowerment

For globally displaced populations, financial inclusion intersects with a series of other challenges. What fintechs can do to help.

Signals: Harnessing fintech for refugee empowerment

As Aristotle once said, "For we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." His words are a potent reminder that our professional responsibilities extend beyond mere tasks; they are an avenue for ethical conduct and societal contributions. This holds especially true for fintech firms, who are uniquely positioned not just as conduits for capital flow but as instruments for social justice and intersectionality.

Today, we are witnesses to an escalating humanitarian crisis. With over 114 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, a number that has surged by 4 million since May, collective action that transcends borders and institutions is urgently needed. The UNHCR has declared 46 emergencies across 32 countries in the last year alone, underlining the need for all sectors, including fintech, to take ethical action. Fintech can play an invaluable role, particularly when viewed through an intersectional lens that considers the multifaceted experiences of these individuals.

The term "intersectionality," coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, isn't merely a trending buzzword. It is a framework through which unique challenges and opportunities at the intersection of fintech and social justice can be understood. Crenshaw urges us to "name the problem to solve it." For refugees and the displaced, the intersectional problem is financial exclusion compounded by a lack of documentation, legal status, and cultural barriers.

The Fintech Opportunity

According to a 2021 World Bank report, approximately 1.4 billion adults globally are unbanked, a number that includes many refugees. As Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, aptly noted, 'The merits of financial inclusion are strongly rooted in empowerment. Access to credit is a key link between economic opportunity and economic outcome. By empowering individuals and families to cultivate economic opportunities, financial inclusion can be a powerful agent for strong and inclusive growth." This transformation offers fintech firms an opportunity—indeed, an ethical obligation—to act.

Humanitarian crises aggravate financial exclusion in key ways:

  • Documentation- 10 million people globally are stateless, per the UNHCR. For refugees, losing official identification not only precludes the ability to access vital services in their asylum countries– including education, government aid, and healthcare– it raises the barriers to accessing services from private sector providers. Asylum-seekers from countries deemed “high-risk” by financial institutions are often barred from opening accounts without a passport, even if they are able to furnish other forms of government-issued identification.
  • Severed access to wealth & income- Forced displacement severs populations’ access to the accounts they used to safeguard wealth, access remittances (globally, a $948.99 billion market) through, and build their pensions in. Imagine having to rebuild your nest egg from scratch without any of the capital you’ve accumulated to get off your feet.
  • Cultural barriers- Individuals displaced by such crises often find themselves navigating unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environments where language differences impede access to essential financial services. This linguistic divide not only hinders basic communication but also complicates the understanding of complex financial systems and regulations. For example, ​Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Germany. Upon arrival, many of these individuals, unfamiliar with the German language and financial system, face significant challenges, such as opening a bank account, which is a crucial step in establishing a stable life in a new country, becomes a daunting task. The banking terminology, regulatory requirements, and even the basic process of filling out forms in German can be overwhelmingly complex for someone not fluent in the language.
  • Erasure of underwriting data- The erasure of underwriting data, such as credit history and educational/professional credentials, during humanitarian crises, leads to categorising affected individuals as "high risk" on credit and employment applications. According to a study conducted by the International Rescue Committee, displaced populations are twice as likely to be denied a loan or other forms of credit than those not affected by displacement. This classification often forces them into the arms of predatory lenders, exposing them to exorbitant interest rates and perpetuating financial vulnerability. Humanitarian crises worsen financial exclusion by compounding the difficulties displaced individuals face in accessing essential financial services, further marginalizing them economically.

Case Studies: Turning Potential into Action

Here are some examples of fintechs tackling these issues: