Collecting biometric data from refugees has become a popular thing among several aid organizations as part of how they carry out their work. However, some researchers such as Dragana Kaurin of The Localization Lab have started raising questions on the dangers of this privacy invasion practice.

The reasoning behind aid organization collecting the biometric data of refugees and asylum seekers is that most of them arrive in countries without any identity documents and as such they need to be identified and documented so they can be offered services to help them. However, in all these data collection exercises, no one seems to be asking the refugees for consent.

"There's a big question: How do people actually feel about all their data being collected, because no one is asking them," said Kaurin.

A Congolese refugee goes through the verification process, including fingerprint and iris scans in Uganda. Source: UNHCR/Michele Sibiloni

Putting refugees lives at risk

Given that refugees sometimes leave their countries to flee, in some cases, war or situations where a specific tribe is being killed, a biometric identity system in which the refugee gives no consent or cannot request their data back once they have been formally accepted into a country can be quite a traumatic experience. Traumatic in the sense that, without anything being explained to the refugee, some have been reported to wonder if such data can be used to trace them or in some cases it is a cultural shock.

Some experts, like Carolyn Graydon, principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, have even gone as far as labelling the biometric data collection system such as the one used by UNHCR as being coercive. Graydon has argued that the nature of how such processes and systems are implemented are such that if a refugee refuses for their biometric data to be collected, they could be denied much needed humanitarian assistance such as food and healthcare.

However, the UNHCR states that refusal to hand over biometric data on "legitimate grounds" will not stop a refugee from receiving the necessary aid. It is anyone's guess what "legitimate grounds."

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