UNHCR pilots new biometrics system in Malawi refugee camp

Making a Difference, 22 January 2014

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
A young girl in Malawi's Dzaleka refugee camp undergoes an iris scan as part of a programme to develop a global biometrics system for UNHCR.

DZALEKA, Malawi, January 22 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has completed initial testing of a new biometrics system that should help it better register and protect people, verify their identity and target assistance for the forcibly displaced in operations around the world.

The identification management tool, which is being developed by UNHCR with a private sector company, was tested here at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi last month. It stores fingerprints, iris data and photographs for facial recognition and will include an emergency feature to aid in fixing populations in advance of full registration. For refugees without ID, this becomes a vital record.

UNHCR experts are currently reviewing the results of the pilot exercise and making recommendations for improvements, with the aim being to produce a biometrics system for the refugee agency that is fast, intuitive, secure, durable and easy to use in varied and challenging environments across the world. It should be ready for rollout to the field in the second half of this year.

"The experience in Malawi will inform our decision on further development and roll-out of the new biometrics tool in our operations around the world," said Steven Corliss, director of UNHCR's division of programme support and management.

"Improving the accuracy of registration data is a priority for UNHCR in our efforts to make a positive impact in the lives of the people we serve. It is also of significant importance to host governments," he added.

When rolled out, the integrated biometric solution will support all standard registration activities, playing a leading part in the implementation of the policy on biometrics in refugee registration and verification, issued by the agency in 2010.

Over the month-long exercise in Dzaleka, the nearly 17,000 refugees reported to UNHCR staff in the camp's registration centre to have their individual data verified and to enrol their biometric data, scanning their fingerprints, face and iris images into the new system.

"It has always been a challenge for the government to establish who is who in the camp; this is one way of solving the situation," said a Malawi government official.

The team gathered by UNHCR in Dzaleka faced significant logistical and technical challenges in maintaining power and online connectivity, as well as the operation and maintenance of state-of-the-art equipment for recording biometric data.

An information campaign explaining the exercise to the refugees was crucial to its success. "The biggest challenge was to convince refugees to enrol, when they were not sure about the overall purpose of the exercise, but once we explained to them, they embraced it and showed up in droves," said Kelvin Sentala, UNHCR assistant field officer in Malawi.

Refugees questioned by UNHCR said they were happy because now there was a permanent record of their identity. Many refugees lose their documents during flight and this can cause them problems later and restrict access to aid and protection. "I can be someone now. I am registered globally with the UN and you'll always know who I am," said 43-year-old Congolese refugee Olivier Mzaliwa, echoing the thoughts of other refugees.

Malawi currently hosts some 17,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly from the Great Lakes region and eastern Africa.

By Tina Ghelli in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi

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Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Waves of fighting in eastern Democratic of the Republic since late April have displaced tens of thousands of people. Many have become internally displaced within the province, while others have fled to south-west Uganda's Kisoro district or to Rwanda via the Goma-Gisenyi crossing.

The stop-start clashes between government forces and renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda began in the province's Masisi and Walikale territories, but subsequently shifted to Rutshuru territory, which borders Uganda.

Between May 10-20, one of UNHCR's local NGO partners registered more than 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Jomba and Bwesa sectors.

The IDPs are living in difficult conditions, staying in school buildings and churches or with host families. They lack food and shelter and have limited access to health facilities. Some of the displaced have reported cases of extortion, forced labour, beatings and recruitment of minors to fight.

UNHCR and other major aid organizations plan to distribute food, medicine and other aid. More than 300,000 people have been forcibly displaced in North and South Kivu since the start of the year, according to UN figures.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Internally Displaced in Chad

In scenes of devastation similar to the carnage across the border in Darfur, some 20 villages in eastern Chad have been attacked, looted, burned and emptied by roving armed groups since 4 November. Hundreds of people have been killed, many more wounded and at least 15,000 displaced from their homes.

Some 7,000 people have gathered near Goz Beida town, seeking shelter under trees or wherever they can find it. As soon as security permits, UNHCR will distribute relief items. The UN refugee agency has already provided newly arrived IDPs at Habila camp with plastic sheeting, mats, blankets and medicine. The agency is scouting for a temporary site for the new arrivals and in the meantime will increase the number of water points in Habila camp.

The deteriorating security situation in the region and the effect it might have on UNHCR's operation to help the refugees and displaced people, is of extreme concern. There are 90,000 displaced people in Chad, as well as 218,000 refugees from Darfur in 12 camps in eastern Chad.

Posted on 30 November 2006

Internally Displaced in Chad

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