In Jordan, refugee families undergo an iris scan to receive their monthly financial allowance.
An asylum seeker, landing on the shores of Europe, will have their hand pressed on a warm screen and their fingerprints taken.
If they end up in a country like Australia, biometric information — unique physiological characteristics like fingerprints or handprints or an iris scan — may again be collected as part of the visa process.
Handing over increasing amounts of personal data is now another consequence of seeking safety away from home.
This is largely ascribed to security and the need to funnel people who may arrive without identity documents into the global refugee system.
But critics say the temptation for humanitarian organisations and governments to collect as much biometric data as possible, enabled by new technology solutions and the internet’s vast capacity for storage, can put already traumatised people at risk.
“And there’s a big question: How do people actually feel about all their data being collected, because no one is asking them,” said Dragana Kaurin, a human rights researcher and founder of The Localization Lab.
Fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition
Governments and international aid organisations have rolled out new technology platforms to process asylum seekers over the past decade.
The UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) has a Biometric Identity Management System that records fingerprints and iris scans, often in partnership with local governments.
Of the refugees registered by the UNHCR, more than 80 per cent of those above five years of age have a biometric record, which can help them access cash assistance, among other programs.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has Scope: an online system that manages the identities and entitlements of those who need aid, using data provided by the UNHCR.
Biometric details are collected by various humanitarian organisations largely because there is the technical means to do so, suggested Charlotte Lindsey Curtet, the director of digital transformation at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) .
Previously, when she worked in aid distribution, fingerprints were taken with indelible ink on a piece of paper to avoid people coming back for duplicate food packages.
It was a low-fi solution — the indelible ink on somebody’s finger prevented them from collecting aid again.
But in a digital age, much more could technically be done with a fingerprint stored electronically.
In her view, minimising data collection should be front of mind.
A WFP spokesperson said it uses technology to improve “the efficiency and effectiveness of how we deliver food assistance”, while keeping data “in dedicated, secure UN data centres”.
Consent under pressure
When deciding whether to share biometric details with aid agencies or governments, refugees would ideally be able to make free and informed decisions.
To understand how such data collection is experienced by those entering Europe, Ms Kaurin recently completed a study based on interviews with asylum seekers who had reached Greece, Spain, Germany and Italy.
Her work suggested information about data collection — who was collecting it, for what purpose and who it would be shared with, for example — was not always well conveyed as asylum seekers enter Europe.
“Before fingerprints are taken, people must be told what their rights are…that you can request this data back,” she said.
“But no-one [that] has been interviewed has been told any of this.”
Carolyn Graydon, principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, formerly did humanitarian work with Syrian refugees in Jordan.
She said she understands why the UNHCR, for instance, introduced a biometrics system — whether for efficiency or to reduce instances of people receiving more aid than they’re assigned.
But she questioned whether it was possible for refugees to adequately consent to sharing such information, calling it “an inherently coercive environment”.
If people don’t share biometric information, it could complicate their ability to access “lifesaving humanitarian assistance or fundamental protection from persecution, torture, death or other human rights abuses,” she said.
According to the UNHCR, a “refusal to provide biometrics based on legitimate grounds does not alter an individual’s right to international protection”.
Force and security
One man Ms Kaurin spoke to, who had arrived in Europe from Afghanistan, found the process of fingerprinting particularly traumatic.
“They just took his hand and placed it on a hot box, and he was really scared it was going to burn him,” she recalled.
“There are cultural differences, and a basic right of explaining to this man what is about to happen to him.”
This is also a question the ICRC’s Ms Lindsey-Curtet is considering: “How can vulnerable persons have informed consent about a technology they don’t necessarily understand?”
Then there is the difficulty of keeping identifying information secure, and ensuring it’s not shared with organisations that could put refugees at risk.
A 2016 UN review of the UNHCR biometrics program found inconsistent information about the system was provided to refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Thailand and India.
In particular, it was not always clear when and what type of data would be shared with governments and other organisations.
A UNHCR spokesperson said all refugees and asylum-seekers were informed in a language and manner they understood of the personally identifiable data to be shared with partners, including governments.
Biometrics in Australia
Biometric data collection does not end when an asylum seeker arrives in Australia, either.
The Migration Act allows a range of what it calls “personal identifiers” to be collected.
This information can be combined with social media records as part of an identity assessment, said Sarah Dale, principal solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service.
In some cases, she said, visa applicants may also allow immigration officials to contact the UNHCR to collect any information that group may hold.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the collection of biometrics supported its capacity to confirm identity, “while allowing people to move seamlessly and efficiently across the border”.
Ms Dale said her clients were often unconcerned about the collection and comparison of such details — they were willing to surrender any information to prove “a person’s truth and credibility” when seeking a visa.
“Here’s my photos, here’s my fingerprints,” she said.
“They’re so desperate to stay here and are so desperate that when the government says jump, their first question is ‘how high?'”
Ms Kaurin ultimately ascribed the rise of data collection in humanitarian work to a culture of “techno-solutionism” — the idea that just one tool, one piece of technology, can solve a problem like proving identity. And importantly, attract funding.
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