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Fraud accusations at UN refugee agency highlight importance of biometric systems


UN refugee agency UNHCR has strongly rejected what it characterizes as “widespread allegations made against its workforce” made in an NBC report which documents claims of bribery and fraud.

The NBC article details claims made by several named and unnamed refugees, as well as former employees, about certain individuals, three of whom are named in the report, accepting bribes. The article also suggests that bribes are widespread at several UNHCR camps, such as large operations in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. It also includes allegations that the agency has not been responsive enough in investigating complaints and dealing with violations.

UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly noted to NBC that all stable UNHCR operations now use biometric registration at various stages of the process, which “makes theft of identity virtually impossible.” Refugees interviewed by NBC agreed that biometrics use is a step forward, but suggested other ways of cheating would increase.

In response, UNHCR noted that it is “one of the biggest and most operational UN agencies,” with 16,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom it says are deeply committed professionals, working in 138 countries to serve 68.5 million people.

The statement recognizes the possibility of failures on an individual basis, and asserts a commitment to integrity, with thorough investigations of every allegation carried out by its independent Inspector General’s Office (IGO). Additional investigators have been hired in recent years, according to the statement, and UNHCR disciplinary measures reinforced, and 60 percent more disciplinary actions taken by its High Commissioner from 2017 to 2018, in addition to referrals to national authorities.

“The prevention of fraud, including identity fraud, is key to ensuring the integrity of our resettlement programme,” the agency says in the statement. “This is why we use biometrics in registration, including iris scans and fingerprints, in the majority of refugee operations where we operate, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Biometric registration makes theft of identity virtually impossible and biometric screening of refugees is done at various stages of the resettlement process, including right before departure. In other places, such as Libya and Yemen, where security conditions do not allow us to deploy such a tool, we take all possible preventive measures related to fraud.”

The delivery of services to vulnerable persons is often seen as particularly vulnerable to fraud, as the environment is considered challenging for identification, oversight, and other mechanisms of accountability. Oxfam issued a report critical of the use of biometrics for humanitarian aid last year, however.

The UNHCR recently joined the advisory board of ID4Africa.

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