Registration project improves profile of refugees in Mozambique

News Stories, 30 December 2004

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Taking photos of toddlers for the refugee registration at Marratane camp involves hiding Mum behind a UN-blue cloth.

MARRATANE CAMP, Mozambique, Dec 30 (UNHCR) It's the eve of the big day at Marratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique and tensions are running high for the UNHCR team.

"Did we buy enough stationery? Who is responsible for the generator's fuel? Speaking of fuel, do we have enough food and water? We need desk lamps to take pictures. Has anyone seen the 30m-long cord?"

Although they and the Mozambican refugee authorities, INAR (National Institute for Refugee Support), have been preparing for this event for weeks, the team is experiencing last-minute anxiety, checking and rechecking all the logistics to ensure the successful launch of a new expanded approach to refugee registration.

"Registration saves lives, especially in an emergency," says Dirk Hebecker, UNHCR's senior registration officer. "The sooner we know how many refugees there are in which location, including children and people with special needs, the faster we can distribute aid to everybody the weak and sick as well as the strong ones who can queue for hours. And do not forget separated families, children who get lost during the exodus. Immediate registration enables us to reunite families and trace lost persons."

UNHCR started working with Microsoft in the area of refugee registration in 1999, when a mass exodus of Kosovars to Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia prompted the need for high-capacity technologies that allow speedy registration and the issuance of identity documents for very large refugee populations. This involved developing innovative registration kits with laptop computers, digital cameras, identification card printers and other accessories as well as a computer programme tailored exactly to the needs of refugee population management.

In 2002, UNHCR launched its registration modernisation campaign known as Project Profile. Today, the agency is using advanced technology to manage routine refugee registration as well as mass influxes. In addition to a new registration handbook, the Profile team has developed a new registration database application, ProGres, which allows UNHCR staff to maintain and update relevant refugee data that can be adapted for use in virtually any setting. The partnership with Microsoft continues, with the company's volunteers helping to set up new registration systems in several countries.

Like in Marratane camp, all refugee registration operations require detailed planning and painstaking preparations. Hardware has to be installed in remote areas where electricity supply is erratic or non-existent. People have to be trained to operate the hardware and the software. Interviewers, data entry clerks, interpreters and protection staff have to understand the process and their role in it.

While UNHCR has the know-how and necessary equipment, refugee registration and the issuance of identity documents are primarily the responsibility of each host government. At Marratane camp, the registration exercise is being jointly conducted by UNHCR and INAR.

The camp's 4,500 refugees were informed of the operation well in advance. Everything runs like clockwork on the first day. Everybody knows what to do. The equipment is set up. Sungu-sungus, the refugee guards in the camp, organise the crowd and help with communications between interviewers, data entry clerks, the desk for special cases and the officers who approve the issuance of the card.

Refugees wait patiently until they are called to the desks to give their data. Files are retrieved and forms filled in. All refugees will get new food ration cards as well.

Everybody's photo is taken in front of a UN-blue piece of cloth. Little children have to be tricked. A toddler sits on his mother's lap while she hides behind the cloth so that only he appears in the photo. Older children laugh their heads off when they see their parents' photos pop up on the computer screens.

The whole place is abuzz. Last-minute questions are resolved. Some refugees do not know their first name from their family name, as is the case in many cultures. Normal camp business has to be attended to as well. A refugee died in hospital the night before. His body needs to be transported to the camp's burial site in spite of the stress and limited transportation capacity.

The most exciting moment comes late in the afternoon, when the card machine prints out its first impeccable, plasticized, falsification-proof refugee ID card.

Sifa, a young Congolese widow with a three-year-old daughter, receives the camp's first card from UNHCR Representative Marie Louise Dzietham and INAR National Director Rosa Chissaque. As fellow refugees crowd around to see her state-of-the-art card, Sifa looks very happy that it has replaced her old ID an A4-sized form with a photo glued to the top right corner.

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Congolese refugee Sifa (right) receiving the camp's first ID card from UNHCR's Marie Louise Dzietham and INAR's Rosa Chissaque.

"This looks much more official," she says of her new card. "The police will recognise it easily now and not give us any more troubles."

The staff at Marratane camp are relieved at the successful start of their registration activity, which will continue through the end of the year. As the refugees marvel at their first encounter with 21st-century technology, the UNHCR team has already started thinking about the next operation in another corner of the world.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Mozambique