Governance challenges of the biometric registration of refugees

Marie-Eve Loiselle

- completed - 

In February 2015, UNHCR completed field testing of its Biometric Identity Management System (BIMS). The new scheme enables UNHCR to register and verify the identity of individuals based on their unique physical characteristics, using iris recognition, fingerprints, and facial images. As of March 2018, UNHCR has used BIMS for the registration of 4.4 million refugees in 48 countries.

The proposed research project will identify challenges arising from the expanding use by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) of biometric technologies for the identification of refugees and the provision of aid. It will document and analyze the legal and normative consequences of the new technologies for the agency and other stakeholders involved in the collection and management of the data. It will consider, as well, the impact on refugees of this new regulatory requirement. In particular, it will question: (1) how the technology is affecting the way that UNHCR is carrying out its humanitarian mission; (1.a) how it is reconfiguring the relationship between UNHCR and other stakeholders, including refugees, private corporations, and states; and (1.b) what power structures and dynamics are taking shape around BIMS. Under the second subset of questions, Marie-Eve asks: (2) what are the ethical and legal implications of BIMS; (2.a) what are the effects of BIMS on the rights of refugees; and (2.b) how does BIMS fit within the larger landscape that governs border management and immigration, including the rise and influence of ‘big data’?

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