9 March 2018
Increased data collection introduces serious risks to people’s privacy and security – and there is no reason to think it will automatically improve policy.
Jeff Crisp

Dr Jeff Crisp

Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

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A refugee from South Sudan has their biometrics registered at a refugee camp in Uganda. Photo: Getty Images.
A refugee from South Sudan has their biometrics registered at a refugee camp in Uganda. Photo: Getty Images.

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‘Protecting children on the move starts with better data.’ Those are the words of a statement recently released by UNICEF. It goes on to say that ‘reliable, timely and accessible data are essential for understanding how migration and forcible displacement affect children and their families and for putting in place policies and programmes to meet their needs’.

UNICEF is not alone in reaching such conclusions about the importance of data. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration opened a Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, with the purpose of ‘delivering real-life benefits for migrants and governments’. In October last year, UNHCR and the World Bank announced that they were establishing a join data centre which will ‘greatly improve statistics on refugees’ and ‘enable a better informed and more sustainable response to forced displacement’.

Many governments share this enthusiasm for the collection, analysis and dissemination of data about people who are on the move. UN member states are currently negotiating two ‘global compacts’, one of them relating to international migrants and the other to refugees. The very first objective of the former agreement is ‘to utilize accurate data as a basis for evidence-based policies’, while the latter asserts that ‘reliable, comparable and timely data [are] critical for evidence-based measures to improve conditions for refugees’.

The high level of current interest in refugee and migration data should come as no surprise. Innovations in the field of biometrics, the widespread use of digital devices, the popularity of social media and the penetration of internet services to the most remote parts of the world have all allowed information to be collected much faster, more systematically and at far less cost than was previously the case.

The new emphasis on data is also to be welcomed in many respects. With the right information at hand, aid agencies can gain a better understanding of the scale and direction of refugee and migrant movements, the social and economic conditions they encounter in their countries of  destination, the services and aid they require, as well as the skills that they bring with them. When it is properly disaggregated, data collection can also provide important insights into the specific assistance and protection needs of boys, girls, adolescents, single mothers, disabled people and older persons.    

Even so, there are a number of reasons to be cautious in relation to the new enthusiasm for ‘data-driven humanitarianism’.

The collection of data, especially when it involves biometrics, raises important confidentiality and security issues. In December 2017, for example, a technology company hacked into the cloud-based server of a data platform used by a dozen UN agencies and NGOs, accessing the names, photographs, family details and map coordinates of thousands of families receiving assistance in West Africa.

Needless to say, authoritarian states that have produced large refugee and displaced populations – Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, for example – could make use of such data to identify individuals and groups whose loyalty is considered suspect, targeting them for surveillance, discrimination or punitive action. As a result, refugees and migrants might choose not to be registered for aid (as has already been the case with some exiled Syrians in the Middle East) thereby exacerbating their vulnerability.

While the collection of biometric data is often justified in terms of the need to combat fraud (and as a result has been strongly promoted by donor states) the risk of aid diversion actually becomes greater when the distribution of aid is based on insecure data platforms that are accessible to many different people, organizations and private companies. The potential for such abuse will undoubtedly increase as the aid industry embraces the notion of cash assistance, distributed by means of ATMs and mobile phones.

Although the humanitarian community has developed agreed standards in relation to functions such as nutritional assistance, shelter provision, water supply and sanitation, there are no guidelines for the way in which aid agencies collect, store and analyse data. And this problem is likely to be reinforced by the increasingly competitive nature of the aid industry. In the words of one analyst, many aid agencies are ‘ramping up on using technology and trying to one-up each other in a rush to be seen as innovative’.

A further issue in relation to data concerns the extent to which refugees, migrants and other vulnerable people are informed why their biometrics are being collected, the uses to which it will be put and the people who will be able to access it. This is a particularly pertinent issue when the data are collected by states that are eager to control the movement of people. In the EU, for example, the fingerprints of every asylum seeker are taken and stored in the Eurodac database. This is used to identify people who have moved on from the first EU country in which they arrived and to return them there, whether they wish to be returned or not.

The notion that additional data will lead governments to formulate better policies also requires a reality check. Many states are currently trying to obstruct the movement of people, gripped by the notion that the world is experiencing an ‘unprecedented migration crisis’. In fact, the data show that the proportion of the global population moving from one country to another has remained remarkably stable for the past few decades.

Similarly, while all of the evidence demonstrates that more people migrate from poor countries when economic growth occurs, industrialized states continue to act on the false assumption that pumping development aid into impoverished regions will encourage people to stay where they are.

Looking to the future, there is a real risk that data management becomes an end in itself, absorbing scarce humanitarian resources while outstripping the ability of aid agencies to analyse the information they have collected and to use it in effective ways. Aid agencies that rely heavily on data collection and the introduction of new technologies may also limit the extent to which they interact with refugees and migrants at a human level, leading them to adopt an overly technocratic and apolitical approach to their work.

Protecting people on the move starts not with better data, but with an ability to understand the key threats to their rights and to change the behaviour of those responsible for putting refugee and migrant lives at risk.

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