Regardless Of Price, Bitcoin Is A Lifeline For African Refugees
An Eritrean refugee woman is registered during a distribution of items organised the United Nations ... [+] High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images
It’s a common misconception that new bitcoin users are usually western traders preoccupied with the bitcoin price. In contrast, the bitcoin adoption rate in Africa has been growing faster than any other region globally, over the past few years. Bitcoin is becoming especially popular in countries like Nigeria and Kenya while African refugees are also turning to bitcoin when other cross-border tools fall short. Such is the case with refugees fleeing Eritrea, a nation in East Africa that is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa. Eritrean journalist and human rights activist Meron Estefanos told me that bitcoin has become a useful tool in her efforts to rescue refugees who fall on hard times while fleeing Eritrea.
Each month, more than 5,000 Eritreans flee the country to Sudan, Ethiopia, or the trail to reach Europe through the Saharan desert, where the unluckiest die along the way or are sold into slavery in Libya. Tens of thousands of refugees are stuck in the conflict and are often attacked by different factions such as the Ethiopian army, the Eritrean army, and Tigrayan forces.
Estefanos, who is also the founder of the nonprofit International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, told me that several years ago refugees kidnapped by human traffickers began contacting her for help paying their ransoms. This prompted her to establish the diaspora-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing Eritrean refugees victimized by human traffickers. However, the Eritrean government's surveillance system makes these rescue efforts even harder.
“As an activist, I interact with a variety of individuals from around the globe, including sources, researchers, and the people I assist. Receiving and sending money can put their lives in jeopardy, as transactions via both the banking system and traditional remittance services are recorded,” Estefanos said. “The recipient could be accused of being a foreign mercenary and sentenced to prison.”
Bitcoin was a golden solution for Estefanos, who saw it as a way to convey financial resources to refugees, particularly those who were unable to utilize government-issued identification to receive money via traditional remittance systems. Through her bitcoin-savvy organization, she is now able to assist families in sending funds to rescue their loved ones without exposing them to additional repression from the Eritrean government.
While bitcoin can be traced, as every transaction on its blockchain is permanently and transparently recorded, sending bitcoin without a third party crypto exchange provides an extra layer of privacy. African users rely on a variety of platforms that do not collect and store users' information, which provides a faster solution to sending funds using the Lightning Network than would have ever been possible with a bank. That’s why the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, now provides bitcoin education to refugee communities across East Africa. Estefanos told me that the next step is developing bitcoin mining operations in rural areas powered by renewable energy. She said she hopes that her nonprofit will be able to increase its impact and support more refugees in urgent need of assistance.
This refugee rescue operation may still be small, serving dozens of people rather than thousands, it is not the only nonprofit spreading bitcoin education on the continent. Operations like Bitcoin DADA in Kenya and Bitcoin Mountain in Cameroon both of which started and ramped up their operations in 2022, show that the rampant growth of bitcoin adoption in Africa will be driven by grassroots initiatives, regardless of global bear market blues.