Hundreds of thousands of refugees are finding assistance – and something unexpected – in safe camps around the world: a biometric identity they can use long after they move on. These permanent biometric records are being created by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), better known as the UN Refugee Agency.
“When we were out in Thailand, we definitely saw what it means first hand when someone has to bring every shred of documentation they have – which is not much in many cases – and prove who they are,” says UNHCR Biometrics Project Manager, Jim Ragle. He likens a biometric identity to a passport for someone who suddenly has no home.
“It’s the fingers or their eyes, but it’s documented. It’s in the system; everybody else in the camp has the same thing,” says Ragle. “No one can pass themselves off as you. They’ve been given a documentation of their identity.”
The agency recently finished testing a biometric system at safe camps in Thailand for registering and identifying people who’ve been displaced. About 10,000 refugees were enrolled at one of the camps as part of a verification exercise.
“For them, it’s a countrywide census where they bring all the refugees in and update their information,” Ragle says “They record new births and deaths that have occurred and just generally sort of use it to clean up their registration information. So this time, we added biometrics as a part of that.”
Some bugs were worked out, and the new system remains in operation. The first step involves getting as much documentation as possible from the new residents. “When we enroll them biometrically, we’re saying this is your new identity, your fingers and your irises,” Ragle says. In the past, every time they received services they had to prove who they were via documentation, but with biometric enrollment they no longer have to do that. “It enables them to have a very easy, undeniable means of proving who they are,” he explains.
When refugees move among camps or return for food and other assistance, the team can accurately verify their identity within seconds. “If they were a refugee in another camp and they move, the system will identity them,” says Ragle. “They’ll put their fingers down or their eyes in front of iris scanning goggles, and they’ll be identified and we’ll be able to see where they’ve come from.”
Via goggles or scanners, refugees enroll irises or fingerprints to establish a new, verifiable identity
Knowing where refugees come from enables their entire case to be transferred to the new camp so that care can continue just as it was at the prior location. “With a global system, as people move around they don’t have to reestablish their identity at every place,” he adds.
Biometrics Identity Management System
The Biometrics Identity Management System (BIMS) was piloted in a Malawi refugee camp in December 2013. It had a final field test in Thailand before the global deployment phase began last January.
The agency has long used biometrics for identification in its camps. Now, this global system gives travelers the ability to be quickly verified at each new camp.
“Biometrics has been in use by UNHCR for many, many years now and it’s been used successfully across Africa, Asia and the Middle East using both fingers and irises separately,” says Sam Jefferies, deployment manager for the new biometrics system.
Biometrics has been in use by the UN for many years, and it’s been used successfully across Africa, Asia and the Middle East
With the new system, all ten fingerprints and two irises are captured for each enrollee. “With that full set of biometrics it only then takes one biometric, whether it’s one finger or one eye, to accurately and undeniably identify someone’s identity,” Jefferies says. “Refugees rely on UNHCR for food provisions, and biometrics can help rapidly identify the populations as they move from camp to camp.”
The agency hopes to roll out the new tool to 10 countries this year. An operation underway in Chad will eventually biometrically enroll up to 450,000 people at 18 camps. Advances in biometric technology provide more accuracy and efficiencies than the previous localized systems.
“To UNHCR, this is very important because our populations are displaced from their homes. They often flee from areas of conflicts and lose their documentation or don’t even have any documentation to begin with,” Jefferies says. “So being able to assure that identity from the moment we meet them over time through their journey, through their life cycle with UNHCR, is very important to us.”
No need for smart cards
Though the agency has used smart cards in emergency situations like the massive flooding in Pakistan in 2010, smart cards aren’t part of the BIMS project. Jefferies says there’s no need for a card thanks to the centralized biometrics system.
“In the past you needed a smart card which could be carried from site to site to prove your biometrics belong to you,” Jefferies says. “Now that the identity is held centrally, provided the operator has access to the internet, all it takes is for someone to put their fingers down on any reader to prove who they are within seconds.”
But the UNHCR system may be the exception instead of the rule. According to ABI Research, the general trend shows biometrics being used as an additional or secondary factor of authentication. Dimitrios Pavlakis, biometrics and security analyst for ABI Research, doesn’t think this global biometrics system will completely replace smart cards for the UN as a means of identification and receiving services. “Smart cards have so much investment, and there is too much existing infrastructure for them to disappear completely,” he adds.
Education about the advantages of biometrics does make it an attractive option for identification though, Pavlakis says. “It depends on how exactly that biometric information will be used and how it helps in the task at hand. If it is for identifying individuals, then yes, it does help, and imagine how you can identify people with no papers whatsoever,” he explains.
Jefferies says data privacy and protection are paramount. “By the nature of the work we do, we’re privileged to get some very, very sensitive information which if in the wrong hands could have dire consequences for our populations,” Jefferies says. “A centralized system takes away the need to have that sensitive information stored locally. So in cases where offices might be compromised and servers might get lost, damaged or stolen, having it centralized removes that risk.”
Enrollment in BIMS is strongly encouraged, but it isn’t mandatory. Refugees don’t have to provide any data, biometric or otherwise, to receive help.
“Refugees know that the more they are able to tell us, the better we are able to assess their need for protection and other services,” Jefferies says. “As many refugees aim for resettlement in countries like the US, they are aware that providing an undeniable source of identity throughout their life cycle with UNHCR gives the receiving countries more confidence that the person they look to resettle is the same person arriving at their border.”