Editor's Note: This article was written by Tesfa-Alem Tekle, a journalist and researcher living in Ethiopia. It is part of our series on digital identification systems produced in association with The Engine Room. Visit the digital identification microsite to read a full research report on this global trend and case studies in five countries that have deployed digital identification systems, including Ethiopia.
In 2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officially announced a new digital identification program for refugees.
The new program, known as the Biometric Identification Management System (BIMS), was then pursued in dozens of countries – including Ethiopia – in 2017.
Biometric registration enables refugees to guarantee digital identification that gives them access to various assistance services and rights. Although digital identification has potential benefits in terms of boosting the humanitarian response, its use has raised serious concerns about privacy and exclusion among refugees.
The UNHCR office in Ethiopia explained to Global Voices in an interview that the biometric identification system is an additional function of registering refugees with the aim of improving the profiling of refugees, and also collecting information to improve self-confidence and eventual inclusion.
“The system was incorporated into the overall individual registration exercise to ensure the integrity and quality of the data,” said Kisut Gebregzabiher, UNHCR spokesperson in Ethiopia.
This is vital for refugees, as the government-recognized identity documentation can constitute proof of legal identity, which is key for the legal, socio-economic and digital inclusion of refugees within host communities. … The system also removes the risk of multiple registrations or identity theft.
This is vital for refugees, as the Government has recognized that identity documentation can constitute proof of legal identity, which is key to the legal, socio-economic and digital inclusion of refugees in the communities that host them … The system also eliminates the risk of multiple registrations or identity theft.
The management system has been implemented currently in the 26 refugee camps throughout Ethiopia, and also in urban centers and others where there are refugees.
Several refugees in Jewi camp to the west in the Gambella region and Hitsats to the north in the Tigray region told Global Voices that UNHCR staff never mentioned the disadvantages of biometric technology.
The digital registration process captures multiple features such as fingerprints, iris recognition, facial structure, and voice. Therefore, the process has led to concerns among refugees about privacy violations (when data is shared with third parties) and exclusion of essential services after the denial.
When the technology was introduced, most refugees were unaware of the potential risks of digital registration until some of the most educated people in the camps began to talk about its consequences.
A South Sudanese refugee from the Jewi camp, who asked not to reveal his name for security reasons, told Global Voices what they were informed about the biometric registration without camp authorities explaining these risks.
Digital registration could lead to serious repercussions for refugees who do not want their information released to their host country or country of origin due to fears of discrimination, forced repatriation or retaliation, some refugees told Global Voices.
In the Hitsat camp, Eritrean refugees who were in the Army fear that the Ethiopian Government may share their data with the Eritrean Government.
Eritrean refugees were especially concerned after the recent reconciliation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which restored diplomatic ties in July 2018, ending two decades of hostility. The two neighbors fought a bloody border war between 1998 and 2000, in which approximately 70,000 people died.
Presumably, biometric and personal data collected by UNHCR is shared with third parties, a claim denied by Gebregzabiher, a UNHCR spokesperson in Ethiopia: “Refugee data is not shared with outside parties. UNHCR's data protection policies govern data protection for all data held by UNHCR. ”
What also makes digital identification registration risky is the fact that Ethiopia does not have laws specifically designed to deal with privacy and data protection issues – except for a few sets of rules contained in various rules that guarantee the right to privacy.
“UNHCR must respect the rights of the person going through the registration process,” an Eritrean refugee told Global Voices, and also emphasizes the need to “understand why biometric data is being collected and how it will be used and its potential risks.”
Gebregzabiher denied the refugees' claims. He told Global Voices that they explain to refugees about the “benefits and consequences” of the new system before giving their details. When Global Voices asked Gebregzabiher to clarify what he meant by “consequences,” he said, “the disadvantages of not implementing the digital system.”
“It was clarified to refugees that a higher registration parameter means better protection, better targeted program, improved data integrity and data protection fraud,” Gebregzabiher told Global Voices.
Refugees who spoke to Global Voices said frustrations are mounting in the camps over the potential risks of digital identification and as a result, there is more resistance to the unpopular digital identification system. A refugee in the Hitsats camp, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said:
At first, we had no knowledge of the risks of recognition. Most of us completed the biometric registration out of honesty and due to the trust we have for UNHCR and Ethiopia.
At the beginning, we did not know the risks of recognition. Most here completed the biometric registration out of honesty, and due to the trust we have in UNHCR and Ethiopia.
He also told Global Voices that they did not ask for their consent before their biometric data was collected.
Another refugee who also wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons said:
The registration process does not embrace consent. Being asked for consent is seen as a luxury right. We get registered as a means of force because we don't have any other option to get food or protection.
The registration process does not accept consent. Being asked for consent is considered a luxury right. We register as a means of strength because we have no other option for food or protection.
‘An obligation for survival’
Refugees have said that those who refuse to participate in the digital registry are excluded from receiving UNHCR assistance such as food rations or any other assistance, leaving them no choice but to accept the exercise.
Several refugees in the Hitsats and Jewi camps who spoke to Global Voices by phone said they are not comfortable with the newly implemented digital registration system and question its benefits.
A former Eritrean soldier who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons said:
Unlike what the UNHCR staff is saying, the new digital registration system didn’t initiate any new special benefits package. We are getting the same usual assistance like food rations and other non-food items we used to get. … I doubt if the new system would at all bring any extra aid benefits.
Contrary to what UNHCR staff are saying, the new digital registration system did not initiate any special benefits packages. We are receiving the same usual assistance as food rations and other items besides food that they gave us. .. I doubt that the new system will bring us additional benefits of assistance.
For an Eritrean refugee, mother of one who also asked to remain anonymous, the obligation of digital registration is considered a precondition for receiving basic UNHCR services:
It is appalling to see UNHCR using digital registration as an obligation for survival. … I felt like I was held hostage for food and shelter by the one UN agency trusted to lean on.
It is terrible to see UNHCR use digital registration as an obligation for survival. … I feel like I'm ment for survival. … I feel like I'm being held hostage by food and shelter from the UN agency I trusted.
Spokesman Gebregzabiher noted that he has not yet seen anyone refuse to register.
“The launch of the registry was preceded by a massive campaign to publicize it so that refugees adequately understand the benefits of the new registry system and collaborate with experts who do the registration. Thus, there was no resistance from the refugees, ”said Gebregzabiher.
However, refugees Global Voices spoke to in Ethiopia said that several refugees who refused to register had to leave the camps.
Another South Sudanese refugee who asked to remain anonymous said that “the majority of those who refuse to register are outside the camp because they were told to leave. Some remain partially in the field and others have integrated into communities in Gambella and others had to return to South Sudan. “
Global Voices later learned that in the Jewi refugee camp, supporters of some Christian groups such as Protestants, the Messianic Jewish Church of God and the Yawuhe Congregation, also refused the registration process for religious reasons.