The GovLab Selected Readings on Data Responsibility, Refugees and Migration

By Kezia Paladina, Alexandra Shaw, Michelle Winowatan, Stefaan Verhulst, and Andrew Young

As part of an ongoing effort to build a knowledge base for the field of opening governance by organizing and disseminating its learnings, the GovLab Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on key opening governance topics.

Special thanks to Paul Currion whose data responsibility literature review gave us a headstart when developing the below. (Check out his article listed below on Refugee Identity)

The collection below is also meant to complement our article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Data Collaboration for Migration where we emphasize the need for a Data Responsibility Framework moving forward.

From climate change to politics to finance, there is growing recognition that some of the most intractable problems of our era are information problems. In recent years, the ongoing refugee crisis has increased the call for new data-driven approaches to address the many challenges and opportunities arising from migration. While data – including data from the private sector – holds significant potential value for informing analysis and targeted international and humanitarian response to (forced) migration, decision-makers often lack an actionable understanding of if, when and how data could be collected, processed, stored, analyzed, used, and shared in a responsible manner.

Data responsibility – including the responsibility to protect data and shield its subjects from harms, and the responsibility to leverage and share data when it can provide public value – is an emerging field seeking to go beyond just privacy concerns. The forced migration arena has a number of particularly important issues impacting responsible data approaches, including the risks of leveraging data regarding individuals fleeing a hostile or repressive government.

In this edition of the GovLab’s Selected Readings series, we examine the emerging literature on the data responsibility approaches in the refugee and forced migration space – part of an ongoing series focused on Data Responsibiltiy. The below reading list features annotated readings related to the Policy and Practice of data responsibility for refugees, and the specific responsibility challenges regarding Identity and Biometrics.

Data Responsibility and Refugees – Policy and Practice

International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2010) IOM Data Protection Manual. Geneva: IOM.

  • This IOM manual includes 13 data protection principles related to the following activities: lawful and fair collection, specified and legitimate purpose, data quality, consent, transfer to third parties, confidentiality, access and transparency, data security, retention and personal data, application of the principles, ownership of personal data, oversight, compliance and internal remedies (and exceptions).
  • For each principle, the IOM manual features targeted data protection guidelines, and templates and checklists are included to help foster practical application.

Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre / OCHA (eds.) (2008) Guidance on Profiling Internally Displaced Persons. Geneva: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

  • This NRC document contains guidelines on gathering better data on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), based on country context.
  • IDP profile is defined as number of displaced persons, location, causes of displacement, patterns of displacement, and humanitarian needs among others.
  • It further states that collecting IDPs data is challenging and the current condition of IDPs data are hampering assistance programs.
  • Chapter I of the document explores the rationale for IDP profiling. Chapter II describes the who aspect of profiling: who IDPs are and common pitfalls in distinguishing them from other population groups. Chapter III describes the different methodologies that can be used in different contexts and suggesting some of the advantages and disadvantages of each, what kind of information is needed and when it is appropriate to profile.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Model agreement on the sharing of personal data with Governments in the context of hand-over of the refugee status determination process. Geneva: UNHCR.

  • This document from UNHCR provides a template of agreement guiding the sharing of data between a national government and UNHCR. The model agreement’s guidance is aimed at protecting the privacy and confidentiality of individual data while promoting improvements to service delivery for refugees.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2015). Policy on the Protection of Personal Data of Persons of Concern to UNHCR. Geneva: UNHCR.

  • This policy outlines the rules and principles regarding the processing of personal data of persons engaged by UNHCR with the purpose of ensuring that the practice is consistent with UNGA’s regulation of computerized personal data files that was established to protect individuals’ data and privacy.
  • UNHCR require its personnel to apply the following principles when processing personal data: (i) Legitimate and fair processing (ii) Purpose specification (iii) Necessity and proportionality (iv) Accuracy (v) Respect for the rights of the data subject (vi) Confidentiality (vii) Security (viii) Accountability and supervision.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2015) Privacy Impact Assessment of UNHCR Cash Based Interventions.

  • This impact assessment focuses on privacy issues related to financial assistance for refugees in the form of cash transfers. For international organizations like UNHCR to determine eligibility for cash assistance, data “aggregation, profiling, and social sorting techniques,” are often needed, leading a need for a responsible data approach.
  • This Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) aims to identify the privacy risks posed by their program and seek to enhance safeguards that can mitigate those risks.
  • Key issues raised in the PIA involves the challenge of ensuring that individuals’ data will not be used for purposes other than those initially specified.

Data Responsibility in Identity and Biometrics

Bohlin, A. (2008) “Protection at the Cost of Privacy? A Study of the Biometric Registration of Refugees.” Lund: Faculty of Law of the University of Lund.

  • This 2008 study focuses on the systematic biometric registration of refugees conducted by UNHCR in refugee camps around the world, to understand whether enhancing the registration mechanism of refugees contributes to their protection and guarantee of human rights, or whether refugee registration exposes people to invasions of privacy.
  • Bohlin found that, at the time, UNHCR failed to put a proper safeguards in the case of data dissemination, exposing the refugees data to the risk of being misused. She goes on to suggest data protection regulations that could be put in place in order to protect refugees’ privacy.

Currion, Paul. (2018) “The Refugee Identity.” Medium.

  • Developed as part of a DFID-funded initiative, this essay considers Data Requirements for Service Delivery within Refugee Camps, with a particular focus on refugee identity.
  • Among other findings, Currion finds that since “the digitisation of aid has already begun…aid agencies must therefore pay more attention to the way in which identity systems affect the lives and livelihoods of the forcibly displaced, both positively and negatively.”
  • Currion argues that a Responsible Data approach, as opposed to a process defined by a Data Minimization principle, provides “useful guidelines,” but notes that data responsibility “still needs to be translated into organisational policy, then into institutional processes, and finally into operational practice.”

Farraj, A. (2010) “Refugees and the Biometric Future: The Impact of Biometrics on Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 42 (2010): 891.

  • This article argues that biometrics help refugees and asylum seekers establish their identity, which is important for ensuring the protection of their rights and service delivery.
  • However, Farraj also describes several risks related to biometrics, such as, misidentification and misuse of data, leading to a need for proper approaches for the collection, storage, and utilization of the biometric information by government, international organizations, or other parties.  

GSMA (2017) Landscape Report: Mobile Money, Humanitarian Cash Transfers and Displaced Populations. London: GSMA.

  • This paper from GSMA seeks to evaluate how mobile technology can be helpful in refugee registration, cross-organizational data sharing, and service delivery processes.
  • One of its assessments is that the use of mobile money in a humanitarian context depends on the supporting regulatory environment that contributes to unlocking the true potential of mobile money. The examples include extension of SIM dormancy period to anticipate infrequent cash disbursements, ensuring that persons without identification are able to use the mobile money services, and so on.
  • Additionally, GMSA argues that mobile money will be most successful when there is an ecosystem to support other financial services such as remittances, airtime top-ups, savings, and bill payments. These services will be especially helpful in including displaced populations in development.

GSMA (2017) Refugees and Identity: Considerations for mobile-enabled registration and aid delivery. London: GSMA.

  • This paper emphasizes the importance of registration in the context of humanitarian emergency, because being registered and having a document that proves this registration is key in acquiring services and assistance.
  • Studying cases of Kenya and Iraq, the report concludes by providing three recommendations to improve mobile data collection and registration processes: 1) establish more flexible KYC for mobile money because where refugees are not able to meet existing requirements; 2) encourage interoperability and data sharing to avoid fragmented and duplicative registration management; and 3) build partnership and collaboration among governments, humanitarian organizations, and multinational corporations.

Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov (2015) “Experimentation in Humanitarian Locations: UNHCR and Biometric Registration of Afghan Refugees.” Security Dialogue, Vol 46 No. 2: 144–164.

  • In this article, Jacobsen studies the biometric registration of Afghan refugees, and considers how “humanitarian refugee biometrics produces digital refugees at risk of exposure to new forms of intrusion and insecurity.”

Jacobsen, Katja Lindskov (2017) “On Humanitarian Refugee Biometrics and New Forms of Intervention.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 1–23.

  • This article traces the evolution of the use of biometrics at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – moving from a few early pilot projects (in the early-to-mid-2000s) to the emergence of a policy in which biometric registration is considered a ‘strategic decision’.

Manby, Bronwen (2016) “Identification in the Context of Forced Displacement.” Washington DC: World Bank Group. Accessed August 21, 2017.

  • In this paper, Bronwen describes the consequences of not having an identity in a situation of forced displacement. It prevents displaced population from getting various services and creates higher chance of exploitation. It also lowers the effectiveness of humanitarian actions, as lacking identity prevents humanitarian organizations from delivering their services to the displaced populations.
  • Lack of identity can be both the consequence and and cause of forced displacement. People who have no identity can be considered illegal and risk being deported. At the same time, conflicts that lead to displacement can also result in loss of ID during travel.
  • The paper identifies different stakeholders and their interest in the case of identity and forced displacement, and finds that the biggest challenge for providing identity to refugees is the politics of identification and nationality.
  • Manby concludes that in order to address this challenge, there needs to be more effective coordination among governments, international organizations, and the private sector to come up with an alternative of providing identification and services to the displaced persons. She also argues that it is essential to ensure that national identification becomes a universal practice for states.

McClure, D. and Menchi, B. (2015). Challenges and the State of Play of Interoperability in Cash Transfer Programming. Geneva: UNHCR/World Vision International.

  • This report reviews the elements that contribute to the interoperability design for Cash Transfer Programming (CTP). The design framework offered here maps out these various features and also looks at the state of the problem and the state of play through a variety of use cases.
  • The study considers the current state of play and provides insights about the ways to address the multi-dimensionality of interoperability measures in increasingly complex ecosystems.     

NRC / International Human Rights Clinic (2016). Securing Status: Syrian refugees and the documentation of legal status, identity, and family relationships in Jordan.

  • This report examines Syrian refugees’ attempts to obtain identity cards and other forms of legally recognized documentation (mainly, Ministry of Interior Service Cards, or “new MoI cards”) in Jordan through the state’s Urban Verification Exercise (“UVE”). These MoI cards are significant because they allow Syrians to live outside of refugee camps and move freely about Jordan.
  • The text reviews the acquirement processes and the subsequent challenges and consequences that refugees face when unable to obtain documentation. Refugees can encounter issues ranging from lack of access to basic services to arrest, detention, forced relocation to camps and refoulement.  
  • Seventy-two Syrian refugee families in Jordan were interviewed in 2016 for this report and their experiences with obtaining MoI cards varied widely.

Office of Internal Oversight Services (2015). Audit of the operations in Jordan for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Report 2015/049. New York: UN.

  • This report documents the January 1, 2012 – March 31, 2014 audit of Jordanian operations, which is intended to ensure the effectiveness of the UNHCR Representation in the state.
  • The main goals of the Regional Response Plan for Syrian refugees included relieving the pressure on Jordanian services and resources while still maintaining protection for refugees.
  • The audit results concluded that the Representation was initially unsatisfactory, and the OIOS suggested several recommendations according to the two key controls which the Representation acknowledged. Those recommendations included:
    • Project management:
      • Revising standard operating procedure on cash based interventions
      • Providing training to staff involved in financial verification of partners supervise management
      • Establishing ways to ensure that appropriate criteria for payment of all types of costs to partners’ staff are included in partnership agreements
    • Regulatory framework:
      • Preparing annual need-based procurement plan and establishing adequate management oversight processes
      • Creating procedures for the assessment of renovation work in progress and issuing written change orders
      • Protecting data and ensuring timely consultation with the UNHCR Division of Financial and Administrative Management

UNHCR/WFP (2015). Joint Inspection of the Biometrics Identification System for Food Distribution in Kenya. Geneva: UNHCR/WFP.

  • This report outlines the partnership between the WFP and UNHCR in its effort to promote its biometric identification checking system to support food distribution in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya.
    • Both entities conducted a joint inspection mission in March 2015 and was considered an effective tool and a model for other country operations.
    • Still, 11 recommendations are proposed and responded to in this text to further improve the efficiency of the biometric system, including real-time evaluation of impact, need for automatic alerts, documentation of best practices, among others.