National ID Month: Biometrics and Refugees

The Crisis

Forced displacement is a global problem born as the result of persecution and conflict. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s 2014 Global Trends report, by the end of last year there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, 19.5 million of which are counted as refugees. To illustrate the point, the UNHCR states that if that total population of the displaced were to be counted as a nation, they would account for the 24th largest country in the world. That’s nearly the population of Italy

Each of these people, by virtue of being human, has an identity. Unfortunately, having been forcibly displaced, a refugee’s identity difficult to verify. Under the conditions of displacement individuals are at risk for identity theft and fraud or having their personal identity lost. The UNHCR turned to biometrics to address this problem and allow refugees and other displaced persons the assistance they need, when they need it.

The Technology

facial recognitionThe UNHCR’s biometric identity management system (BIMS) completed its development phase in February of this year and was made to better accord with the agency’s Policy on Biometrics in Refugee Registration and Verification that positions biometrics as essential in refugee identity management for the above reasons. In a white paper describing the system, the BIMS is positioned as a matter of human dignity, bolstering the UNHCR’s ability to protect refugees and offer them solutions to their plight.

The BIMS leverages technology from Accenture, who stands as the UNHCR’s primary contractor in this regard. Using fingerprint, iris and facial recognition, the biometric system – leveraging Accenture’s Unique Identity Service Platform (UISP) – stores a subject’s identity information in a central global database. This means, no matter where a refugee is, whether she has an identification document or not, she can rest assured that she will not be lost administrative holes or mistaken for someone else.

A major process in the implementation of BIMS is de-duplication, and to address this Accenture selected the ELISE software platform from WCC Smart Search & Match. ELISE reconciles typos, name changes and other data entry issues using fuzzy logic and consolidates all of an individual’s biometric and biographic data into a master ID record.

All of this adds up to a successful and massive international biometric solution. According to a UNHCR video explaining BIMS, ID checks in the system take less than 10 seconds, and only require one of the subject’s biometrics to be scanned.

The Future

BIMS was piloted at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi where 17,000 refugees were enrolled into the system. In January of this year the system underwent final testing in Thailand where its increased speed and accuracy was confirmed. The video below serves as an excellent overview of the subsequent Thailand deployment:

In July, the UNHCR completed its BIMS rollout in Thailand where over 100,000 refugees were enrolled and issued IDs. Now the Commission aims to spread it out to its various refugee projects around the globe, urging governments to deploy BIMS particularly in support of displaced persons from Myanmar. Its next stop is Chad, where the goal is to enroll 450,000 refugees in nine months.

The UNHCR has outlined plans for a global rollout of BIMS, with 2018 set as the goal for every UN refugee project to be enrolled.


Stay posted to FindBiometrics throughout September as we continue this conversation with National ID Month. Take part in the discussion by following us on Twitter and tweeting with the hashtag #FBNational.

National ID Month is made possible by our sponsors Green Bit Biometric Systems and NEC Corporation of America. 

September 17, 2015 – by Peter B. Counter