Biometric verification to help improve aid to refugees in Uganda

A UNHCR staff member registers a refugee family in Uganda using biometrics. Photo by: Frederic NOY / UNHCR

ABIDJAN — Africa’s largest refugee hosting country completed the first week of an ongoing refugee verification process on Wednesday. Uganda’s initiative is aimed at validating and updating current government data for an estimated 1.4 million refugees to help improve assistance delivery and strengthen data credibility.

Before this program, refugee registration was conducted manually, increasing the possibility of incomplete or duplicate data caused by human error, and consequently raising questions from supporting donors about data accuracy. Last month, four Ugandan government officials in the refugee management department were suspended amid allegations of fraud, corruption, and exaggeration of refugee figures, raising further doubts about the database.

With the help of resources provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency’s biometric technology, including iris scans, UNHCR will confirm the validity of the government’s refugee database — and in some cases, update it — through a verification process scheduled to last through September.

Initial results from a March 1 pilot phase has illustrated the utility of such a process for both cross-checking governmental records and streamlining the distribution of humanitarian aid. “We verified and registered 200 more [refugees] than were originally counted by adding newborn babies to the list,” UNHCR Uganda spokesperson Duniya Aslam Khan said.

UNHCR is aiming to collect data on 18,000 refugees per day at settlements across the country, including those hosting nationals fleeing violence and instability in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Somalia. To date, the U.N. Refugee Agency has verified a total of 11,684, with programs to begin in northern districts in April. As part of the biometric verification, all family members present themselves for fingerprinting, iris scans, and photos during assigned verification days scheduled by living quarters. Records are then shared with the World Food Programme, which will use the information to determine food distribution per household.

With the biometric verification of registration, the odds of data being false or duplicated are close to zero, Khan told Devex. “The purpose is to verify the accuracy, duplicates, new births, and deaths to help the government deliver assistance to the right people in a timely manner and strengthen the credibility of the data.”

Detailed scheduling has also played a major role in increasing efficiency, tracking verification targets, and managing crowds during this process. Refugee settlements are divided into clusters with each family assigned a particular check-in date. Prior to entering a refugee settlement for verification, a marketing campaign ensures information-sharing and sensitization among refugees in advance.

Uganda seeks support as Africa's largest refugee host country

Thousands of South Sudanese refugees are crossing into Uganda daily, putting pressure on its generous and liberal refugee policy. Humanitarians say the crisis deserves more international support and donor investment.

However, limited funding leaves Khan and her team concerned about their ability to reach all the refugee populations. Uganda remains one of the most under-resourced UNHCR programs, Khan said, with only 5 percent of the funding necessary for general operations available now. “Because of this, there are huge gaps in reaching out to people to provide them better livelihood opportunities or services to enable them to sufficiently sustain themselves, despite progressive refugee policies,” she said.

As a long-term project, increased resources and staffing are required to “expedite the process and minimize the time that one refugee needs to go through the entire verification cycle.”

Uganda boasts an open-door refugee policy that welcomes all asylum-seekers irrespective of nationality, grants free movement and right to seek employment, allows access to public services, and allocates a piece of land to each refugee family. Support of refugees in Uganda, however, has been undermined by poor local infrastructure, weak basic social services delivery, and limited market access in refugee-hosting settlements.

Khan said she hopes these vulnerabilities don’t ignite resentments between refugees and host communities or lead to refugees adopting negative coping mechanisms.

“In order to make this progressive refugee policy a real success, the international community needs to invest more in local infrastructure via the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework for these policies to sustain and to improve the quality of education where refugees are hosted, strengthen health facilities and provide livelihood opportunities,” she argued.

About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.

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