UNHCR’s Biometric IDs Help Protect Refugees from Itself

UNHCR's Biometric IDs Help Protect Refugees from Itself

The United Nations’ refugee agency has been vocal about the benefits of biometric identification for those in its charge for years, but recently the organization invoked this technology in its own defense.

The UNHCR was responding to an extensive investigative report from NBC alleging widespread corruption at the refugee agency. Usually this involves bribery in exchange for services that are meant to be free for displaced persons, but the corruption can also extend to identity fraud, with NBC reporting that in some cases, refugees who could not afford to bribe UNHCR officials to be resettled in a new country had their identities stolen and assigned to other refugees, allowing the latter to jump the queue.

In responding to the NBC report, the UNHCR vehemently insisted that the vast majority of its 16,000-member workforce comprised honest, committed professionals, and asserted that it has rigorous safeguards and disciplinary codes in place to deal with corruption and misconduct. And with regard to the issue of stolen identities, the UNHCR pointed specifically to its use of biometric registration – including iris and fingerprint scanning – for refugees.

“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,” the agency asserted.

In previous communications, the UNHCR has tended to make the case for biometric registration by highlighting its benefits in terms of helping displaced persons to establish official identification for accessing services, and ensuring that government agencies are able to effectively manage refugee populations. But it’s now clear that the UNHCR’s use of biometric identification can help to protect refugees from itself, in the form of fraudsters in its ranks or unscrupulous contractors. The agency acknowledges that “it is impossible for UNHCR to root out ground level imposters,” but it insists that it’s taking measures to help neutralize them, and biometric technology is playing a key role in that effort.

Sources: NBC, UNHCR

May 8, 2019