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Fingerprints mark new direction in refugee registration

News Stories, 30 November 2006

© UNHCR/M.Albert
A child has his fingerprint scanned in Malaysia, which has become the first country in Asia to launch UNHCR's new biometric registration system.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, November 30 (UNHCR) At the registration area of the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur, Nang Piang, a refugee from Myanmar, placed his finger tentatively on the biometrics scanner. Within seconds, his fingerprint flashed on the computer screen. He appeared slightly puzzled by the new technology, but unperturbed.

"I don't know what it is for, but I do what UNHCR wants me to do," he said with a shrug. His biometrics data was recorded in his electronic file, and he left the room. It was apparent that the new biometrics registration system meant very little to Nang Piang, merely another administrative hoop to jump through.

But to UNHCR, this was a historical moment. Malaysia on Monday became the first country in Asia to launch UNHCR's new biometric registration system, which efficiently marries fingerprinting identification with UNHCR's refugee database system, called ProGres.

Biometrics is a unique, measurable characteristic or trait of a human being in this case a fingerprint for automatically recognising or verifying identity.

"This is an important step for UNHCR Malaysia as we strengthen the security of our registration system to prevent fraud," said Volker Türk, head of UNHCR in Malaysia. "Each fingerprint is unique, no two are alike. By referring to this unique human feature, we can determine if a person is already enrolled in our system, and verify if an identity claim is true."

"For instance," he added, "if a rejected asylum seeker tries to reapply for refugee status, the system will automatically discover this. The system will also discover if a person is fraudulently claiming to be someone she, or he, is not. Such a security measure will certainly enhance the credibility of UNHCR's registration system in the eyes of the Malaysian government and other partners."

Ephraim Tan, UNHCR's information technology manager, explained that the new system scanned 1,000 fingerprints a second to verify identity or to catch duplications. Previously, this would have to be found through a time-consuming individual search of biographical data.

"It used to be that double registrations would be discovered by chance when a staff member deliberately conducted such a search," said Tan. "Now, the system will be programmed to conduct such searches at the end of the working day."

Tan hastened to add that double registrations were often the result of human error and not malicious intent: "Sometimes people have been registered at another location and, not understanding the procedure, register again at our office."

At the same time, though, the biometrics scan acts as a deterrent against fraud. "Knowing that their identity will be verified with a fingerprint scan when they approach UNHCR will deter anyone from stealing the identity of a refugee," Tan said.

Tan explained that for now, only those newly registered with UNHCR would have their fingerprints recorded. Soon, however, UNHCR will begin to capture the fingerprints of all 49,000 refugees and asylum seekers already in the system in Malaysia.

"It will be slow and tedious, but well worth it when all those registered with us can be identified by their unique fingerprints instead of just a photograph," said Tan.

The launch of biometrics in Malaysia follows successful implementation in Kenya and Tanzania. The Kenya operation has used this technology to detect cases of attempted multiple registrations under different identities. UNHCR expects six to eight countries to implement the biometrics technology this year, taking the agency a step closer towards developing a more standardised worldwide registration system.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, at the end of a long day of troubleshooting the new technology, Tan helped a young refugee woman from Myanmar with her fingerprint scan.

As he explained the use of the scanner to capture a characteristic that was uniquely hers, the woman's face broke into a smile as she nodded in agreement. "Now no one can come to UNHCR and pretend to be me," she said.

By Yante Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia




UNHCR country pages


The recording, verifying, and updating of information on people of concern to UNHCR so they can be protected and UNHCR can ultimately find durable solutions.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Many Malaysians are astonished to learn that there are refugees living in their country. That's how invisible most of the 67,800 refugees in Malaysian towns and cities are. They don't live in camps, but in low-cost flats and houses alongside the homes of Malaysians. The refugees, overwhelmingly from Myanmar, live in tight-knit groups with as many as 20 or 30 people in one small flat.

As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Arriving in Europe, refugees find chaos as well as kindness

Each day, thousands of refugees and migrants are risking everything to make the perilous journey to Europe. The majority - who come from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - are passing through Greece and then making their way to Germany. Transit countries have been overwhelmed by the influx, but volunteers and NGOs are stepping in to provide support along the route. In Hungary, where there is a large bottleneck of people trying to make their way onwards to places like Germany, UNHCR is mobilizing relief items, including tents, plastic sheets and thermal blankets. The refugee agency is also calling on officials there to streamline the registration process and allow humanitarian organizations to provide swift assistance to those in greatest need. UNHCR is also calling on EU Member States to work together to strengthen emergency reception, assistance and registration efforts in the countries most impacted by arrivals, particularly Greece, Hungary and Italy. UNHCR photographers have been on hand documenting the arduous journey.

Arriving in Europe, refugees find chaos as well as kindness

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

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On October 20, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece passed the half million mark. Their ultimate destination is northern Europe. The majority will take a route that goes from Greece, to FYR Macedonia and then onward through Serbia. At the border point of Presevo, Serbia they must go through a registration process before being allowed to continue their onward journey.
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The Greek Island of Lesbos receives thousands of refugees and migrants every day. A registration centre at Moria – the only hotspot on Lesbos – is working hard to process these new arrivals. But facilities are stretched. Most new arrivals are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are up to 20 other nationalities.
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Croatia: A New Start

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