Report launch: ‘Identity at the Margins — identification systems for refugees”

Caribou Digital are pleased to share our latest research on digital identification, focusing on refugee registration and data management.

The report is here, together with an interactive graphic.

There are over 68 million displaced people in the world, and over 25 million refugees, according to UNHCR, and as these individuals move across borders and register for legal recognition and vital services, they share sensitive personal information with a many different organisations, increasingly using digital identification technologies. Despite growing interest in the benefits new digital technologies can bring for both organisations and individuals, there has not yet been any in depth research to explore refugee registration and data management. This research report funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the accompanying interactive graphic explore these questions and point to directions to advance this work.

This report, the product of research between January and March 2018 in Lebanon, Jordan and Uganda with the support of Save the Children, argues:

For refugees, the current state of humanitarian identity systems presents challenges. Most described having very limited visibility into and agency around the data collected about them by organizations. They were rarely offered the opportunity to exercise control over what data is collected, despite having the capacity and interest to do so. At the same time, many refugees described making active efforts to negotiate the various identities available to them, consciously weighing the benefits and constraints associated with different statuses in order to access services, employment, and to preserve their spatial mobility.

For organisations, the diversity of systems, capacity, and organizational mandates continues to create challenges for sharing identification and related data between humanitarian organizations. Beyond the larger humanitarian organisations, we found that many rely on repurposed and insecure existing technologies to share the personal information of vulnerable populations. The consequence of this is that data sharing practices are often inefficient and insecure, hampering organizational efforts to deliver basic services and uphold fundamental protection principles — which should now cover the personal data of refugees. Finally, we found that current trends in data management focus on organizational needs for internal efficiency and data security, rather than on the needs of individual refugees, leading to data sharing becoming more opaque and inaccessible to beneficiaries.

The report concludes with the following recommendations:

  1. Donors should align their requirements for policy and practice around data protection, and work with host governments to establish data protection legislation.
  2. The humanitarian community should ensure “data accountability” is built into future policy and guidance documents for Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP).
  3. In the short term, a multi-stakeholder working group on interoperability chaired by UNHCR should be established, to support a longer-term standards body focused on identity data. The working group should develop standardized approaches to a “translation layer” that would enable interoperability of functional identities and reduce the dependence on legal refugee status.

This research is part of our ongoing work in identification systems. Digital identification systems are increasingly important, the rails on which our digital futures will run. At Caribou Digital, we believe that no technology is intrinsically good or bad, but that these rails can be shaped so that they advance inclusion and agency or heighten exclusion and the further disempowering of individuals. We are continuing our research on identification in the humanitarian space with fieldwork on “children on the move” for UNICEF in Lebanon, to be published later this year. hope this research helps move the use of identification technologies for humanitarian response towards the agency, privacy and protection of some of the most vulnerable individuals.