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Humanitarian data collection practices put migrants at risk

United Nations report on smart borders warns that data collection about migrants and refugees by humanitarian organisations risks excluding them from essential basic services like access to food

The collection of personal data about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by humanitarian aid organisations is preventing these already vulnerable groups from accessing lifesaving goods and services, warns United Nations (UN) report.

Authored by the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume, the report, which was published 10 November, raises a number of concerns about the ways humanitarian organisations are collecting and using personal data, particularly biometric data, to deliver aid and provision services.

The report noted, for example, how the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) requires refugees returning to camps in Afghanistan to undergo mandatory iris scanning and registration as a prerequisite to receiving assistance.

“Though UNHCR justifies collecting, digitising and storing the refugees’ iris images … as a means of detecting and preventing fraud, the impact of processing such sensitive data can be grave when systems are flawed or abused,” said the report, adding that it has been documented that such biometric surveillance tools have led to refugees losing access to goods and services necessary for survival.

“In various forced migration and humanitarian aid settings, such as Mafraq, Jordan, biometric technologies are being used in the form of iris scanning in lieu of identity cards in exchange for food rations. However, conditioning food access on data collection removes any semblance of choice or autonomy on the part of refugees – consent cannot freely be given where the alternative is starvation.”

It added that an investigation into the trials of ‘biometric aid’ systems in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan from May 2016 revealed many of the refugees interviewed were uncomfortable with using such technology, but felt that they could not refuse if they wanted to eat.

“The goal or promise of improved service delivery cannot justify the levels of implicit coercion underlying regimes such as these,” said the report, which also noted that, to date, the UN has collected biometric data on over eight million people, most of whom are fleeing conflict or in need of humanitarian assistance.

However, it is often unclear what happens to the various data collected about refugees, and whether those affected are able to access the highly sensitive information others hold about them.

Last year, for example, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) partnered with controversial data mining firm Palantir for a £34m contract that saw the organisations sharing data on 92 million aid recipients, of which at least 5.8 million are reported to contain fingerprints and photos.

“Private corporations such as Palantir have proved essential in providing the technology that supports the detention and deportation programs run by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), raising justified concerns of corporate complicity in human rights violations associated with these programs,” said the report, adding that it is not yet clear what data sharing accountability mechanisms are in place, and whether migrants and refugees will be able to opt out.

“Data collection is not an apolitical exercise, especially when powerful Global North actors collect information on vulnerable populations with no regulated methods of oversights and accountability.”

The report goes on to say that the exclusion of refugees and asylum seekers from essential basic services as a result of data collection and sharing practices is not confined to refugee camp settings.

For example, while undocumented persons in Germany have the same right to healthcare as others, the social welfare office that administers their healthcare is legally obliged to report their personal data to immigration authorities.

This is likely to have a “chilling effect” on migrant and refugees’ use of these services, as it means accessing healthcare, through perfectly legal means, could result in immigration enforcement.  

International aid funds used to bolster digital surveillance of migrants

Another concern raised briefly by the report is the use of international aid by countries in Europe and North America to advance their border agendas in less economically developed countries.

“For example, in 2016, French public-private company Civipol set up fingerprint databases for Mali and Senegal. Financed with €53m from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), these projects aim to identify refugees arriving to Europe from both countries and deport them,” it said.

Hundreds of documents obtained by privacy campaign group Privacy International (PI) shows widespread use of EU aid funds to finance a range of border surveillance programmes and training in countries with poor human rights records – including Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey – which the organisation said is putting people at risk.

“Instead of helping people who face daily threats from unaccountable surveillance agencies – including activists, journalists and people just looking for better lives – this ‘aid’ risks doing the very opposite,” said PI advocacy director Edin Omanovic.

To overcome the issues related to “surveillance humanitarianism”, the report recommends that all UN humanitarian and related bodies “adopt and implement mechanisms for sustained and meaningful participation and decision-making of migrants, refugees and stateless persons in the adoption, use and review of digital border technologies”.

Specifically, it added that migrants, refugees and others should have access to mechanisms that allow them to hold bodies like the UNHCR directly accountable for violations of their human rights resulting from the use of digital technologies, and that technologies should be prohibited if it cannot be shown to meet equality and non-discrimination requirements.

It also recommends that UN member states place “an immediate moratorium on the procurement, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology, until robust human rights safeguards are in place to regulate such practices”.

A separate report on border and migration “management” technologies published by European Digital Rights (EDRi), which was used to supplement the UN report, found the wider societal effect of increasing digital border surveillance is that people on the move are presupposed to be criminals unless proven otherwise, leading to a massive militarisation of border management and enforcement.

“The opacity of border zones and transnational surveillance transform migration into a site of potential criminality that must be surveilled and managed to root out the ever-present spectre of terrorism and irregular migration,” wrote author Petra Molnar, Mozilla fellow and associate director of the Refugee Law Lab.

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