Our world is increasingly unstable. War, persecution, and environmental change are forcing millions of people to leave their homes in search of safety.
In September 2023 the United Nations estimated 114 million people were forcibly displaced. That number did not include those fleeing the latest conflict in Gaza. By some estimates, as many as one billion people will be displaced by 2050. Many of these people will not cross an international border.
How will we deal with such large-scale migration?
Already, surveillance technologies are used by governments and international agencies to detect irregular migrants, process refugees, and predict movements. The global humanitarian sector increasingly relies on algorithms to identify people and to target support.
These people are at once reliant on technology to communicate with families, access services and build new lives and are increasingly surveilled by it.
In our second newsletter, we explore how this tension might play out over the next 20 years.
Stories in this issue
- Australian disaster victims refuse to provide biometric data
- Countries close borders to refugees over spike in ID fraud
- Super rich invited to join exclusive residential enclaves
- Refugee employment firm wins VC backing
- UNHCR recruits for new creative tech role
- Displaced people emerge as a key electoral force
Australian disaster victims refuse to provide biometric data
SYDNEY, February 2028 – Hundreds of people sheltering in emergency accommodation south of Sydney are refusing to supply biometric data to access support services claiming the request is an invasion of privacy.
The group is among thousands of Byron Bay residents currently sheltering in town halls and school stadiums who are being asked to provide fingerprints, iris measurements, DNA and voice samples before they can access emergency provisions, disaster payments, public housing or access hospitals and schools in new areas.
The move is part of a national plan to leverage artificial intelligence in response to natural disasters. The biometric identities will be assessed alongside tax, education, and health records to assign assistance to people based on their need and their own capacity to recover.
For example, if someone is a high-income earner or has a second home, they will be deprioritised for housing. Children in public schools will be automatically re-enrolled in a school the same or a nearby council area, where possible.
However, at least 300 people across five emergency shelters are refusing to participate arguing the government has an inherent responsibility to support victims of natural disasters.
“We’re being treated like refugees,” said one man whose beachfront home collapsed into the ocean last week.
“This is my country, I live here, I pay taxes, I have a right to government assistance, and to choose where I send my child to school. The size of my iris is irrelevant.”
Another said the move was another example of state control: “It’s just like being forced to get a Covid vaccine.”
The Federal Minister for Natural Disasters said biometric identities were essential to ensure limited resources were distributed quickly and fairly. The government’s priority was to “use limited public money equitably and impartially”.
“AI and biometric systems have been used very effectively in our migration system for decades so it is logical that we would want to use them to enable people to get back on their feet quickly and build new lives in areas where there is less chance of this happening again,” she said.
“If you have lost your home the government will help you to find somewhere to live. That is unlikely to be in the same area but will be somewhere with need or capacity.
“Many refugees have built rich lives in regional areas.”
Countries close borders to refugees over spike in ID fraud
WARSAW, June 2033 – Several major refugee transit countries have refused to accept further migrants and threatened to withdraw from the Refugee Convention unless vulnerabilities with the global digital identity system are rectified.
In a tense session of the UNHCR Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, representatives from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia vowed to close borders to all irregular arrivals citing a ten-fold increase in false identities.
These people could not be processed and so would not be accepted for resettlement by third countries. As a result, populations in refugee camps were swelling, putting pressure on domestic water, food, and energy resources.
MigrationX, developed by Israeli tech company NomadAi, helped revolutionise the migration system by developing an algorithm that accounts for political, economic, social and environmental factors in the host country before assigning migrants for resettlement.
The technology led to a 70 per cent reduction in camp populations globally and better outcomes for migrants. Key integration indicators in education, employment, income and housing have increased consistently over the past five years.
However, the technology relies on migrants having verifiable biometric identities and a series of thefts of paper-based records from government archives in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia over recent years are believed to have provided source material for a wave of false identities.
The Jordan delegate said MigrationX could no longer be trusted.
“Amman simply will not allow a return to the situation ten years ago. We have less water, less food and Jordanians will no longer accept large numbers of refugees. The camps are closed and the land is being used to house people, grow food and produce renewable energy.”
Indonesia agreed, saying that refugee resettlement relied on functional technological systems.
“We need those systems to work. If people want to engage with the global migration system, they need part of that system.”
NomadAi’s market capitalisation has fallen by 28 per cent over recent weeks as links between the document thefts and false identities have emerged.
Analysts expect further falls: “Nomad was riding high on plans to sell enhanced data packages to government and the stock had almost doubled from the IPO price. But those gains have been wiped out. I can’t see it improving,” said one.
The shares fell a further 6 per cent in late London trade, closing at £70.95.
Super rich invited to join exclusive residential enclaves
SINGAPORE, November 2035 – Applications are open for access to a suite of disaster-resilient residential enclaves. Flourish, the global property collective that services the super-rich is selling access to its collection of luxury properties built to withstand climate disasters, civil unrest and pandemics.
The portfolio includes hundreds of properties throughout the world and entitles members to move freely between them. Membership costs €5m annually and includes visa-free travel in host countries.
Refugee employment firm wins VC backing
NAIROBI, March 2038 – A company offering employment services to refugees and forced migrants was the big winner at this year’s Ethical Start Conference.
Wrk2Thr1ve has exchanged term sheets with Future Right, a venture capital firm that invests primarily in ethical logistics, transportation, and labour companies.
Insiders say Future Right offered US$10 million for a 25 per cent stake, betting on the success of the company’s plans to expand financial services to disenfranchised populations.
The Wrk2Thr1ve pitch was one of the most anticipated at the event and insiders say chief executive Moxy Fyre had at least three offers on the table.
The company would not confirm the number of offers or any agreement with Future Right.
“They’re so hot right now,” said one observer.
“They were the first to find opportunities in the global refugee crisis. They rolled out cheap, mobile connectivity in camps, and offered an easy interface for creating virtual professional personas that enabled people to find remote work.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in a tent without an ironed shirt, your digital twin always looks great, and you have access to online training.”
In her pitch to investors, Ms Fyre said the company was driven to empower the newly powerless.
“We have enabled hundreds of thousands of people to earn an income, to feed their families and to build a new life.”
Wrk2Thr1ve charges a 5 per cent commission on all contracts brokered by the system. Typically host governments charge taxes of up to 10 per cent. Contracts are paid in cryptocurrency.
Critics say the model is a form of state-sponsored slavery.
“Wrk2Thr1ve runs the crypto exchange, they’ll cash out the government cut at an agreed rate but offer a worse rate to workers,” said a refugee advocate at the sidelines of the event.
“Most of these people are working for call centres in Eastern Europe, some of which we know are running scams.
“Moxy Fyre is a trafficker in a suit.”
UNHCR recruits for new creative tech role
GENEVA, October 2040 – The UNCHR has launched a global search for a “chief creative technologist” to lead the design and implementation of THEO, the prototype refugee management system it has been developing over several years.
THEO – the Trusted Human Environment Online – is a proprietary automated decision-making system designed to privilege consent in the sharing of refugee data but also provide verified and reliable identity information to resettlement countries.
A spokesperson for the UNHCR said the recruitment team was looking for a unique skill set.
“We need someone who understands artificial intelligence and surveillance technologies but can think creatively about how to design it for human experience.
“We need governments to trust THEO and we need it to help people build a good life.”
The agency began working on developing its own system after the collapse of MigrationX.
Displaced people emerge as a key electoral force
LONDON, August 2043 – Refugee rights are emerging as a pivotal electoral issue in the upcoming local government elections as increasingly large nomadic populations demand access to services throughout the country and abroad.
Rising sea levels over recent years have rendered several parts of the United Kingdom uninhabitable, pushing populations into neighbouring boroughs where they do not pay council tax and so are not entitled to housing, education or other key services.
Many are demanding the same rights as conflict refugees and want to be issued with domestic versions of the THEO-id – the globally recognised digital identity that enables free movement between countries.
Signatories to the THEO-id system agree to accept forced migrants for up to two years and provide access to housing, education and health. In return, migrants agree to work in critical sectors and to move on to another country after two years.
The system was designed to ensure the migration burden was shared however, it does not account for internal displacement.
Fierce lobbying by UK nomadic groups has put the issue on the policy agenda and at least 20 independent candidates in the upcoming elections are running on a mobility platform.
“We need to rethink what it means to be British. It’s not that you live in one place all your life. You move with the work, with the climate, with the food.”
Find out more
On digital passages and borders: refugees and the new infrastructure for movement and control, Social Media + Society
Climate impact map, Climate Impact Lab
Climate change is fuelling migration. Do climate migrants have legal protections? Council on Foreign Relations
Over one billion people at threat of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change,
conflict and civil unrest, Institute for Economics and Peace
These stories were inspired by the UNCHR Scenario Lab hosted by the Digital Cultures & Societies Hub and the WhatIF Lab at the University of Queensland in September 2023. The Scenario Lab aimed to anticipate how, 20 years from now, digital technologies might have transformed the work of the UN refugee agency and the world in which it operates. Thanks to Seb Kaempf, Helen Marshall, Joanne Anderton, and Nic Carah from UQ, Volker Schimmel from the UNHCR global data service, and all those who participated.