How Identification Technology is Aiding the Refugee Crisis


SEATTLE, Washington — Advances in data collection and dissemination technologies have made it possible to identify, track and learn about individuals without ever meeting them in person. For the millions of refugees displaced by violence and civil conflict, this “identification technology” could aid their transition by providing resources, safety and even legal identification. However, imposing the issues created by “big data” information to vulnerable populations raises many ethical concerns regarding personal privacy and accessibility. This article will explore both sides of the debate while reflecting on organizations’ effectiveness in supporting refugees through technology.

The Problem

The world is currently experiencing a refugee crisis of unprecedented size in human history. As of 2019, approximately 71 million people globally were displaced by conflict or persecution. While refugees exist in all parts of the world, the vast majority are fleeing war in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

Countless dangers threaten the refugee population. They often lack essential supplies, necessary communicative technologies and even identification. Neighboring countries often become overrun with refugees and must divert thousands to find sanctuary in faraway lands. Due to conflicting immigration policies, the international community remains unable to coordinate a unified response or divert resources to affected areas. Additionally, countries cannot police traditional emigration routes, leaving refugees vulnerable to disease, raids and even starvation.

While immigration policy falls to governments’ jurisdiction, tracking, identifying and aiding vulnerable populations can be done by humanitarian organizations and new technologies.

What is Identification Technology?

“Identification technology” is a loosely defined term technically related to the fields of data science and computer analytics, but also applies to the scanning, imaging and processing technologies. In this article, the term will reference technologies that track individuals’ or organizations’ movements and activities.

Thus, applications could range from facial recognition technology to GPS tracking to social media platforms. Identification technology could also apply structurally, such as aid organizations tracking its resources and workforce’ displacement. Due to these applications’ benefits, it is unsurprising to see how identification technologies and mass communication systems are often linked. While both are a means of connecting with and learning about disparate individuals, mass communication resembles an altered form of traditional conversation, and identification tech is inherently indirect in action.

Applying Identification Technology to the Refugee Crisis

From the perspective of identification technology, the refugee crisis results from an inability to track and regulate the movement patterns of those crossing borders. Identification technology applications come with the eventual goal of reallocating resources based on tracked movements while ensuring refugees have access to legal identification and reintegration resources. As a result, GPS tracking technologies are critical in identifying these patterns. Facial recognition and digital identification technology are then paired with GPS tracking to create “digital IDs” and ensure legally protected status for displaced individuals.

Moreover, other regularly employed technologies are targeted apps for refugees, designed to ease the cultural and linguistic transition across borders. Humanitarian organizations are frequent identification technology users, using tracking or logistical systems to coordinate their workforce, distribute supplies and succeed in their transition programs. Social media and web-based content are usually overlooked applications. While not commonly seen as identification technology, web tracking is sometimes employed in immigration courts to determine asylum or visa statuses. Future applications are speculated to focus primarily on AI technologies and automation.

Privacy and Ethical Concerns

Any debate about the application of data technology to vulnerable populations will highlight the possibility of privacy infringements. As a concept, data privacy is stipulated by the user’s informed consent in disclosing and using their private data. Legally, privacy depends on the role of third parties and how the data is collected and stored. While the tracking and identifying of refugees are usually done with good intentions—and mostly at the behest of international aid organizations—it is done at the expense of a population often lacking in digital literacy and awareness. Addressing privacy concerns can be accomplished through awareness campaigns, the buildup of digital infrastructure and closing a nation’s technological and digital discrepancies.

Another concern of identification technologies is widespread misinformation. The collection power of modern tracking systems has grown significantly, meaning that over-recording is increasingly common. Thus, misinformation can result in the absence of processed or sourced data.

Institutional Support Programs

In the absence of favorable immigration policies, international institutions have implemented programs to curb the refugee crisis’ impacts through data science. The International Organization for Migration has created a Displacement Tracking Matrix, designed to publish information about refugees’ movement patterns. Moreover, the World Bank and United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) maintain a joint data center that gathers information on displaced groups’ demographic and socioeconomic data.

Additionally, the UNHCR has implemented the Population and Registration Identity Management EcoSystem (PRIMES). This system uses facial recognition and digital ID technology to provide refugees with legal identities that are accepted by many countries today.

While well-funded organizations primarily conduct tracking and collection efforts, non-governmental organizations and citizens play an essential role in managing the refugee crisis. These groups and individuals educate refugees on digital awareness, provide essential services and supplies and open their homes for asylum-seekers.

Looking Ahead

Applying data technology to the refugee crisis is a development that should be observed with cautious
optimism. While tracking and identifying displaced peoples allows the international community to manage the situation better, accountability institutions need to be funded and maintained to protect refugees’ digital rights.

—Matthew Compan
Photo: Flickr


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