Afghanistan: UNHCR imposing compulsory iris-scans on returing refugees over six years old

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  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child:"Article 16 (1) No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence"
  • EU study rejects "iris scans" on the grounds that they are "intrusive" and involve "exposure of the eye to infrared radiation"

Since October 2002 the UNHCR has been taking compulsory "iris-scans" of returning Afghan refugees at three centres on the Pakistan border - a total of over 130,000 people have been scanned so far. The scheme originally applied to everyone over 12 years old, however, this summer the age limit was lowered to just six years old.

The UNHCR's rationale is that this surveillance scheme stops fraud by what they call "recyclers", that is people who go through the scheme more than once. Under the scheme people get between $5 and $30 to cover transport costs (depending on the distance), plus kits containing blankets, plastic tarpaulin, soap, several months supply of wheat flour from the World Food Programme (WFP).

UNHCR say that 600 "recyclers" has been detected this year under the scheme.

It appears that UNHCR have not adopted data protection rules regarding the database as no names are associated with the iris-scans held. However, iris scans constitute personal data whether linked to names or not. Moreover, if this database is accessible by a third party which also stores iris scans but with names and other personal data basic data protection standards would be breached. Guarantees that the database will not be accessible to any third parties are essential.

Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed in November 1989 entered into and force September 1990:

"Article 16 (1) No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence"

The Convention is the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history ­ it has been ratified by every country in the world except two - Somalia and the USA.

Contrary to the claims of UNHCR that iris-scans are not intrusive a study carried out for the European Commission (Visa Information System, April 2003) considering the use of biometrics concludes that iris scans are considered "intrusive" and involve:

"exposure of the eye to infrared radiation"

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"The UNHCR's iris-scanning of those returning to Afghanistan is highly objectionable as this appears to be compulsory for everyone over the age of just six years old if they are to get food and aid within the UNHCR scheme - and it appears that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is being ignored.

Contrary to UNHCR's claims "iris-scans" have been rejected by other international organisations as they are considered the most invasive of the three biometric checks available - facial scans are said to be the least intrusive, followed by fingerprints.

What is beyond the pale is the patronising language used by UNHCR in their coverage towards people who are so desperate that they seek to get a few more dollars and a bit more food out of their scheme. Rather this should lead UNHCR to look urgently at the conditions in Afghanistan rather than labelling people as criminals"

UNHCR press briefing on, 8 August 2003, Geneva

"Of the 250,000 Afghan refugees who have gone back from Pakistan this year, more than half have undergone a pioneering iris recognition test at one of our three verification centres located in Pakistan's border regions. We opted to use this biometric recognition system in order to prevent identification fraud.

The system was successfully tested late last year in Peshawar, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

More than 130,000 refugees have so far undergone the iris test without complaint. The iris verification process uses state-of-the-art technology and is non-intrusive. Potential returnees are asked to look through a small hole while a camera captures a close-up of their iris. Each photographed iris is saved as an image, not as a name, to simplify the process and protect the privacy of returnees. The image is then added to a computer database that is shared among the three iris validation centres. UNHCR staff are alerted every time someone tries to go through the process again.

In view of cultural sensitivities that do not allow Afghan women to unveil themselves in front of men, UNHCR has hired women operators to process the refugee women and children.

We recently expanded use of the iris test in Pakistan to all refugees aged six and above from the previous threshold of 12 years, as our staff had noticed that some children passing through the centres looked familiar. It was believed that some wily Afghans might be "recycling" older kids through the verification centres in order to collect their assistance package more than once.

All Afghans repatriating under the joint UNHCR/Afghan government facilitated return programme receive between $5 and $30 to cover transport costs, plus they get kits containing blankets, shelter materials, hygienic supplies and other items along with several months of WFP food aid. Preventing identity fraud has saved UN agencies millions of dollars.

Of the quarter million returnees from Pakistan so far this year, some 600 were identified by the iris recognition technology as having gone back previously.

Total returns to Afghanistan this year are more than 380,000 including the returnees from Pakistan, and some 130,000 from Iran which include 80,000 with UN assistance and some 50,000 spontaneous returnees. There are some 2.3 million Afghan refugees in the two main asylum countries."

Documentation: UNHCR

1. Afghanistan: New technology solution brings big savings: UNHCR Briefing Notes - 8 August 2003
2. An extraordinary UNHCR news story written from Pakistan eulogising over the iris scans for every returning refugees over six years of age: "Afghan children face iris test with wide-eyed wonder"
3. Afghan "recyclers" under scrutiny of new technology

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