UNHCR reaches 7.2M biometric records but critics express concern

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported major gains in biometric registration in 2018, reaching 60 operations and 7.2 million biometric records stored by the end of the year.

In remarks to the 75th Meeting of the Standing Committee on Global Strategic Priorities, UNHCR Director of the Division of Programme Support & Management Andrew Harper said that the agency has made particular progress in birth registration.

“Registration at birth and the issuance of birth certificates is essential in preventing statelessness. We saw important improvements in some countries, including in Burundi, Ghana, and Rwanda. Regionally, UNHCR and partners were able to significantly reduce the percentage of undocumented Syrian refugee children from approximately 35 per cent in 2012 to less than 2 per cent in 2018.”

New systems further rolled out by UNHCR contributed significantly to the gains, according to Harper.

“UNHCR has strengthened identity management capabilities and expanded the coverage of PRIMES – its Population Registration and Identity Management EcoSystem. By the end of 2018, the proGres v4 case management tool was operational in 58 countries and regional offices, with some 10.5 million individual records registered.”

At the same time, the collection and use of biometrics and other personal data provided by refugees continues to be criticized by rights advocates, Australian national broadcaster ABC reports.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Director of Digital Transformation Charlotte Lindsey Curtet told ABC News that when she worked in aid distribution, fingerprints were taken on paper with indelible ink. While make can be done with digital fingerprints, data collection minimization should be front of mind for aid organizations, according to Curtet.

Dragana Kaurin, founder of The Localization Lab, says her interviews with asylum seekers in Europe indicated that any consent was often not based on adequate information provided by those collecting biometric data, and also that the situation is an “inherently coercive environment.”

For its part, the UNHCR says “refusal to provide biometrics based on legitimate grounds does not alter an individual’s right to international protection.” The agency also says it has made progress on data sharing agreements.

“Close cooperation with trusted partners is also key to ensure that data is used efficiently and securely. Therefore, a data-sharing agreement was concluded with WFP to include assessment and monitoring data, as well as reciprocal data sharing on IDPs and host communities,” Harper says.

The UNHCR is also working with the World Bank on open data and microdata access procedures. Both organizations spoke about the benefits of providing legal ID to vulnerable populations at ID4Africa 2019 in Johannesburg last week.

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