Between control and care : UNHCR and the use of biometrics

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Teologiska institutionen

Abstract: In recent years, humanitarian organisations increasingly embraced biometric technologies to respond to refugee crises. Therefore, this thesis studied the features and effects of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) biometric cash transfer programme in Jordan. The method that has been used is an analysis of relevant academic literature, reports, policies, and news articles examining biometric tools and the varying uses of biometrics in humanitarian contexts. In particular, attention has been paid to the effects of biometrics on refugee management, as well as on UNHCR and its beneficiaries in Jordan. The analysis uses the concepts of accountability, humanitarian neophilia, and humanitarian technology governance to improve understanding of what the use of biometrics means for the humanitarian sector and those dependent on it. The analysis shows that UNHCR’s biometric cash transfer programme has improved downward accountability by speeding up registration processes, thereby ensuring quicker financial inclusion of refugees. Biometrics also improve upward accountability by providing instant metrics regarding beneficiaries, distributions, and other audit trails. Yet, the analysis also reveals serious concerns about experimentation with new technologies in humanitarian settings, a lack of informed consent and data safeguards for refugees, and UNHCR’s increasing dependence on the private sector. UNHCR’s use of biometrics also improves the reputation of these technologies, generates new protection challenges, and increases exclusion risks for non-registered refugees.

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