Uganda launches major refugee verification operation

With the support of UNHCR, government officials are using biometric data to verify more than 1 million refugees in the country.

A Congolese refugee baby and his mother wait their turn for the biometric verification process.  © UNHCR/Michele Sibiloni

ORUCHINGA REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Uganda -  The Ugandan government launched a large-scale programme on Thursday to verify the identities of all refugees in the country, using biometric data.

With support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the World Food Programme, government officials began collecting fingerprints and scanning the irises of more than 1 million refugees.

The purpose of the exercise is to ensure that all refugees are properly registered and receive the protection and assistance they need.

The government is using UNHCR’s biometric registration software, which has already been used to register some 4.4 million refugees in 48 countries worldwide. The verification exercise in Uganda is the biggest in the agency’s history.

Refugees who are verified and registered will receive new ration cards and their biometric identification will be used to provide and improve assistance to each individual.

Uganda starts biometric refugee verification  (Mary Theru, producer / Walter Kigali, camera-editor)

The exercise will be carried out in all refugee settlements and among urban refugees in the capital, Kampala. It is expected to be completed in September 2018, with six teams working simultaneously to register 18,000 people a day.

Douglas Asiimwe, the head of refugee protection in the prime minister’s office, attended the launch at Oruchinga Refugee Settlement the south-west of the country.

“I am going to do a lot of work today.”

“The exercise follows a directive by the prime minister to the authenticate data contained in the government’s refugee registration system,” he told refugees at the site.

“It will help us to ensure that we have credible information to protect and assist refugees effectively and efficiently.”

Oruchinga has 6,852 registered refugees and the verification exercise there is expected to last until 4 March, verifying up to 3,000 per day.

Ugandan Robert Byaruhanga joined UNHCR a week before the launch and, on the first day, he and 64 UNHCR and government staff were already at work in Oruchinga settlement collecting data.

A day earlier, he was still learning the ropes and shadowing a colleague, fellow Uganda Winnie Mugisa.

“Yesterday, Winnie supported me while I processed 12 individuals,” he said at his desk where a fingerprint reader, iris scanner, web camera and laptop are ready. “It went well. I am going to do a lot of work today.”

Winnie, who joined UNHCR in 2007, is also ready to tackle the huge undertaking. Like many of her colleagues, she is regularly dispatched from her local UNHCR office in the northern region of Arua to conduct exercises like these.

"Refugees have done a lot of work."

“We’re used to big numbers, but today is going to be busy,” she said. “The verification is very important. We need to have a system, a standard.”

The exercise in Oruchinga is being supported by 42 volunteers from the refugee community who are assisting with translation and crowd control.

UNHCR Associate Field Officer Gabrielle Low helps to manage the process and the volunteers. She said her aim was to keep the exercise “flowing like water”. In just two weeks, she has seen the site transformed, with three huge tents, toilets, children’s play area and catering for staff and volunteers.

“To see it go from an empty football field to this has been amazing,” she said, during a brief respite. “And refugees have done a lot of work, helping with mobilization and talking to the community.”

UNHCR Representative Bornwell Kantande added: “We want to have better services for all refugees and host communities, and the basis of that is verification.”

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said verification would ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers were accurately reflected in the registration system and would help the government improve the accuracy of its data.

“This will make certain that resources and services provided by UNHCR and its partners reach the intended recipients,” he told a news briefing at the Palais des Nations.

There are 1.4 million refugees in Uganda, of whom more than 1 million have entered the country in the past 18 months. More continue to arrive from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Uganda has among the most progressive policies in the world towards refugees. They are given plots of land, integrated with local host communities and are allowed to work and start businesses.