Select Page

Karl Steinacker, who has been working in the past on UNHCR Strategy on Digital Identity and Inclusion, answered our questions on registration, identity management and on why trust will be a game changer in those domains. 

© Spencer Whalen

A million refugees verified in Uganda, almost as many Rohingya refugees newly registered in Bangladesh – UNHCR’s capacity to register has been tested in recent months.

Karl Steinacker: Indeed, UNHCR has proven yet again that it can establish and maintain credible population registers and provide entire refugee populations with status and entitlement documents. Even though this comes at a price – the verification exercise in Uganda had a price tag of more than 10 million US Dollars – these registration exercises are necessary to ensure both protection and assistance to millions of refugees. This is why the organization is modernizing its systems: PRIMES will work online and offline, it will be a digital and web-based tool supporting e-documents and  cash programmes while being fully operational in remote areas without electricity and connectivity.

UNHCR has been registering refugees for decades. Since some time there is new terminology floating around, such identity management, digital identity, trust, and so on. Are we complicating issues for no reason?

KS: If I were to add more buzz words, like algorithms and artificial intelligence, it would become clear that what we are discussing is just a subset of the ongoing global transformation, the emergence of the information society, the digital economy and the arrival of e-Government. At the end of this transformatory process UNHCR and protection will look very different from what we are used to. The aid industry will not be spared what other economic sectors have already gone through: just think of what the internet did to the high street travel agent or Amazon to retailing.

Aren’t you exaggerating: Who and what is going to disrupt what you call the aid industry?

KS: There are various actors and we should take all them seriously: States – for example – are creating electronic population registers and in the process are taking-over refugee registration which they had previously delegated to UNHCR, the private sector has invented what we call digital identity and related authentication technology and processes, which has the potential to transform every refugee into a recipient of money transfers or digitally enabled services, for example the delivery of non-food items. Technology companies and start-ups are working on blockchain solutions that allow peer-to-peer transactions in order to cut out intermediaries. In the press we read that this might affect banks and insurances for example. I think it will also affect aid agencies being the intermediaries between donors and aid recipients. Canada, it has been reported, is using artificial intelligence as parts of its RSD procedures. And so does UNHCR and partners when using algorithms as part of the identification of the most vulnerable refugees for purposes of cash assistance in the Middle East.

But this does not explain why you advance the concept of trust as being essential for UNHCR’s institutional relevance in the future?

KS: First of all, trust is an essential condition of human society. Trust unifies our families and communities, citizens trust the men and women they vote for in elections and those who administer public affairs. The international system is based on trust between governments and entrusting specific tasks to intergovernmental institutions, such as UNHCR. Even in the economic sphere, trust precedes business deals and our confidence in laws and the judiciary allows for mediation and justice. We trust in the competence and integrity of our teachers, medics and researchers.

The High Commissioner has stated at ExCom that every refugee should have a unique identity as a measure of empowerment and socio-economic inclusion. However, only if this identity is trustworthy it will be recognized by States and businesses and thus be empowering. And as things stand today, it will fall on UNHCR as the institution that will be establishing trusted refugee identities. In doing so, UNHCR will have to align itself with so called “trust frameworks” which have been set-up by States and the private sector. Examples are the European eIDAS and the American NIST creating international standards and processes.

There are very general challenges facing all humanity: how to extend the concept of trust to non-humans, such as auto-pilots in our planes and vehicles. And there is a lot of debate on algorithms and artificial intelligence already. The aid industry will not escape these discussions given that the time will come when algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will be developed to establish trust levels for identification, select beneficiaries for assistance, and persons at risk for inclusion into protection programmes.  These challenges of modern life, mostly triggered by technological development, affect all of us, including refugees, stateless and other forcibly displaced persons. It affects UNHCR, the way we work, the way we relate to the persons the organization is mandated to protect, and our relationship to the Governments we assist to bringing about durable solutions to refugee problems.

What are the most immediate measures to be taken and how can UNHCR keep pace with the rapidly evolving changes?

KS: PRIMES remains the entry point for UNHCR to develop the trust framework that provides refugees with a self-managed identity that is truly empowering and puts them at level playing field with the populations that host them. As trust remains the essential condition for refugees to benefit from socio-economic inclusion, UNHCR has to go beyond the registration of claimed identities of asylum seekers and refugees. We have to promote the interests of those with strong and trusted identities and still protect those others who, on legitimate grounds, can’t yet demonstrate a robust legal, economic, and digital identity. Let us not forget that more than one billion people, according to World Bank figures, do not possess legal identity documents, mainly women and children. A specific SDG target 16.9 (“Identity for all by 2030”) has been set to deal with that issue.

At country level, UNHCR teams need to continue to face emergencies with registration challenges, as seen in Uganda, Bangladesh and elsewhere. In addition, identity will have to move to the centre of protection work: Refugees ought to be included into national population registries, are issued valid identity papers, and have a digital identity so as to obtain SIM cards from mobile operators, have access to financial institutions and bank accounts. Measures have to be put in place in each country to certify different kind of official documents, issued on paper or digitally, that refugees may carry around physically or store in digital wallets in the cloud. Certified documents are a must in order for refugees to move around freely, to study and work, to marry and have families, to run businesses and so on.

UNHCR has a central role to invest in trust as this will facilitate the life of refugees and ultimately empower them. A pre-condition for which is that refugees have trust in UNHCR, in particular it’s identity and data protection and data security systems. UNHCR will continue to co-operate with governments in taking decisions on individuals that are grounded in facts and on records that UNHCR may hold and which help to proof identities. Economic players and academic institutions are willing to extend their services to refugees and other marginalized groups if UNHCR succeeds in contributing to the verification of their claims to an identity and the validity of the documents they carry. Investing in trust is a win-win for everybody as it helps to minimize the risks for institutions, be they public or private, and promote the effective inclusion of otherwise marginalized people, often women and children.

Trust is no longer what happens if we look eye to eye. Trust needs to be generated and maintained for the digital space. Despite all advances, challenges, and risks, trust will remain critical for human, institutional, and technological interaction. It is trust and data, which together make up the currency of the 21st century.


 Karl Steinacker was until recently Deputy Director of UNHCR Division of Programme Support and Management and Head of the UNHCR Global Service Centre in Copenhagen.