In episode 5 of this season of the Declarations podcast, host Maryam Tanwir and panelist Yasar Cohen-Shah sat down with Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and former UN official Karl Steinacker to discuss the collection of refugees’ biometric data. Last summer, Human Rights Watch reported that a database of biometric data collected by UNHCR from Rohingya refugees had been handed to Myanmar’s government – the very government from which the refugees were fleeing. This scandal has brought to a head the debates surrounding the use of refugees’ biometric data: from Yemen to Afghanistan, Somalia to Syria, biometric data is now fundamental to how aid groups interact with refugees. But how does this affect their human rights, and can it ever be used responsibly?
Belkis kicks off the episode by presenting the results of the report authored by her organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the transfer of Rohingya refugees’ biometric data to the Myanmar government. The refugees’ data was collected upon their entry into Bangladesh in a registration process that was required before refugees could be granted a ‘smart ID’ and access aid and services. However, HRW was able to expose the fact that Bangladesh was sharing this biometric data with Myanmar’s government without the refugees’ informed consent, causing obvious concerns for the refugees’ safety and human rights. Disturbingly, HRW found that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) had in fact created the entire system by collecting data in the first place.
“Rohingyas had no choice but to agree or lose access to services.”Belkis Wille
Karl, a former UNHCR official himself, highlights that the issue of ‘registration’ is not covered by the conventions that founded the UNHCR or created a legal framework for aid. This is a task that UNHCR took on much later. After decolonization, the Western powers had a direct interest in making sure that borders in the Global South stayed open so that refugees could find help in neighboring countries in the face of war. According to Karl, the prevailing philosophy of Western powers ran: “you put them in camps, we’ll feed them.” This is where the registration process began – initially in simple ‘paper-and-pen’ form – to organize distribution of food and supplies in refugee camps. As technology improved, this registration system became increasingly sophisticated, integrating photos and other personal details. The attacks of September 11 2001 brutally put refugee registration in the spotlight. From a niche, localized process, refugee registration became a security priority for the UN’s main donors, who pushed the UNCHR to adopt much more sophisticated methods.
“A lot of the push toward mainstreaming biometric registration comes from desire to prevent fraud.”Belkis Wille
One reason why these tools were originally adopted is fraud prevention. Biometric registration is seen as a panacea to fraud, as it enables precise identification of refugees and avoids distributing resources to the same people using different identities. However, Belkis points out that research shows fraud is not happening at the micro level of distribution, but rather “higher up the chain.” The other issue is efficiency: agencies and organisations are under increasing pressure to provide more assistance, faster. Here again, there is no clear evidence that biometric technology has done much to improve this. This leads Belkis to think that some key donors and other organisations have jumped too swiftly to the conclusion that biometric data is the key. There are risks associated with these systems, which need to be weighed against the alleged benefits.
“Once you create these systems, you won’t be able to control what happens to them and how they’re used.”Belkis Wille
Karl recalls how, as a young aid worker, he welcomed the arrival of biometrics. In the past, the head of household (generally a man) was identified and members of his family would depend on his registration – no individual records were kept. The way data was collected before was ‘undignified’: the police or military would enter a refugee camp, round up those living there and subject them to a long and painful registration exercise, collecting fingerprints with an inkpad. It was “almost traumatizing” even to the aid workers, not to mention the refugees who had to undergo hours or even days without being able to move. The promise of biometrics was to end this, and it did. However, it has also brought new risks: there is ample evidence that the number of aid beneficiaries plummets with biometric registration, for instance. Perhaps the problem today is an “overuse” of biometrics, Karl tells us.
“I still think the advantages outweigh the way it was done in the analogue days.”Karl Steinacker
Yasar points our guests to the notion of consent. In a world where biometric data is becoming so common, how can we guarantee the consent of populations who see their data collected? Belkis points out that the broad framework in the aid industry is that data capture is only possible if informed consent is provided. An official is supposed to point out why and how the data is collected. However, if an individual is fleeing armed conflict, what choice does she or he have when access to all forms of aid is conditioned on biometric registration?
“It’s hard to argue that they had a choice. Can we ever see someone in this situation making the decision without coercion?”Belkis Wille
Beyond consent, information is also key. In practice, the UNHCR fails to explain why data is collected and with whom it will be shared. The aid organizations themselves do not always know exactly what happens with the data. “Information and transparency” should, according to Belkis, become the new paradigm; “informed consent” can never be provided in these circumstances. There is also a problem with the collection of biometric information on children. In Kenya, some 40,000 Kenyan children were registered as refugees years ago and now, because of this previous registration, cannot get ID cards despite being Kenyan citizens.
UN agencies can enter into data-sharing agreements with countries, but the nature of these agreements is highly confidential. If you’re a refugee, you have no way of knowing where your data is going. In Jordan, for instance, the UN has admitted that they share refugee data with the Jordanian government, something that refugees are unaware of. This points to the power imbalances that plague the aid sector, with refugees unable to refuse that their data be shared.
“We have no idea what the UN is agreeing to share in a specific country context with the government.”Belkis Wille
Karl points out that data sharing with governments has always been part of the aid process, and does not worry about it per se. However, the situation in Bangladesh is different, as the government is sharing data with the very same state that persecuted these refugees; this is unheard of and particularly problematic. According to Karl, cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis. On aid in general, he notes there is no recourse for refugees. Comparing it with new legislation in the West, such as the GDPR, refugees are provided with little to no rights (such as the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’). The discussion on refugees’ rights has to take place within the international community as a whole, and in particular in states whose governments fund the UNHCR.
“The first biggest shortcoming in the aid sector is that there is neither the right of individuals to know what data is collected about them, nor is there is a right to correct. Secondly, there is no institutional pressure to make this happen.”Karl Steinacker
In terms of future trends, Belkis notes that there are today more conversations taking place than a few years ago. She finds it positive that organizations have started hiring data protection officers and paying more attention to the issue. UN agencies have also published policies. These policies are good, according to her, but their implementation is lacking. For instance, a risk assessment needs to be conducted every time the UNHCR launches a new data collection process, and all too often these are not taking place for mostly logistical reasons: there are not enough trained staff. Belkis calls on donors to take action: at the end of the day, resources are key to train these new data protection officers; donors need to realize that more funding is needed if they want to provide refugees with sufficient data protection.
“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing organizations grappling with these issues much more seriously.”Belkis Wille
Yasar is an MPhil student in World History at the University of Cambridge. He is studying cultural pan-Africanism in Nkrumah’s Ghana in the early 1960s. He is originally from London, and previously studied History at the University of Oxford. After graduating, he hopes to work in international development, particularly with refugees.
Belkis Wille is a senior researcher with the Conflict and Crisis division at Human Rights Watch. Before taking up the role, Wille worked as Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher, and before that was the Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen researcher. Previously, Wille worked at the World Organisation Against Torture in Libya.
Karl Steinacker is an expert on digital identity. As a manager and diplomat of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees he was for several years in charge of registration, biometrics, and the digital identity of refugees. Currently he works with the International Civil Society Centre and Digital Equity on this and related digital issues.
Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, The Politics of Humanitarian Technology: Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences and Insecurity (2017)