UNHCR staff process new refugees using the new iris scanning technology at the UNHCR first registration point in Amman Jordan.

Can Biometrics Solve the Refugee Debate?

December 2, 2015
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by Katie Worth Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Of all the doors into the United States, the one that refugees must pass through is perhaps the most closely guarded of all: The years-long application process involves long interviews, background checks and health screenings. Refugees’ inked fingerprints are checked against databases maintained by the FBI, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

New developments in biometrics may add yet more steps to this process: An eyeball scan is likely to become protocol within weeks, and Homeland Security is developing a quick-turnaround DNA test that can be used in field offices.

These technological advances are arriving just as the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and last month’s deadly attack on Paris has stirred a national debate  over whether the U.S. should accept refugees from Syria. Already, more than two dozen U.S. governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees to relocate into their states. And following the attack, a bipartisan majority in the House passed legislation that would require the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI to each sign off on security clearances for every refugee applying for entry to the U.S. from Iraq and Syria. But President Barack Obama has promised to veto the bill if it clears the Senate, touting as recently as last week the nation’s “intense security checks, including biometric screening.”

In all, more than 4 million refugees have poured out of Iraq and Syria due to the fighting in each country. Because many refugees flee their homes without papers, or lose documentation in their shuffle through borders and camps, they can be difficult to identify and track. Until recently, fingerprinting was the United Nations’ favored identification technique.

That changed in October 2013, when the U.N.’s refugee agency adopted iris scanners. Other than very young children, whose eyes are still evolving, and people with certain kinds of eye damage, any individual can be identified in this way with tremendous accuracy and speed.

In the last two years, the agency has scanned the eyeballs of more than 1.6 million refugees in nations across the Middle East and Europe, with the notable exception of Turkey, which still insists on fingerprints, said Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the U.N. The U.N. now has a “fairly complete biometric database” cataloging the iris patterns and identity of the Syrians and Iraqis who have fled their homelands, Yungk said.

Using the scanners, the agency can track where and when refugees check into camps and offices. It also deters fraud, confirming the identity of applicants for aid, services or relocation. In some countries, the U.N. has even made deals with banks to attach iris scanners to ATMs, so that only those authorized for assistance can make withdrawals.

While some have worried about the security and privacy implications of the massive trove of biometric data, Yungk said the system has several layers of security.

“The great benefit is the ability to confirm identity without relying on pieces of plastic or paper,” Yungk said. “The scans are quick, painless, and require less technology and skill than you need for fingerprints.”

Currently the U.S. doesn’t use iris scanners to identify refugees — it still uses fingerprints. But that will likely change. Before the Paris attacks, talks were already underway between the State Department, DHS and the U.N. to share biometric data. Once the legal language is hammered out, U.S. agencies will have access to U.N. iris scans to verify the identities and travel histories of refugee applicants. That could happen within weeks, Yungk said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been prepping for another technological leap: so-called “rapid” DNA testing.

DNA tests for refugees and other immigrants are controversial because they can reveal deeply buried family secrets about parentage — for example, if a child is the product of infidelity or rape. Critics also say they impose a narrow, “nuclear” conception of family that is tone-deaf to the reality of refugee life, where people often care for unrelated children whose parents may be dead or missing. The U.N. has said DNA testing should be used as a last resort for refugees.

Nonetheless, DNA testing has been embraced by U.S. refugee and immigration agencies to determine whether people within a family are indeed genetically related, with the aim of stymying fraud and child trafficking.

Traditional DNA testing can be expensive and take weeks or months to process at a lab. So U.S. authorities have been funding the development of rapid DNA systems — miniature DNA labs about the size of a microwave, that can be deployed in the field and operated by people with little training, and at low cost.

Their development was largely funded by a $15 million grant from the DOD, DHS and the FBI. Each agency has its own plans for the technology; Homeland Security has paid for the development of software specifically tailored for use in refugee camps. The machines would test DNA off of a buccal swab – a Q-tip rubbed on the inside of the mouth.

The goal, said Christopher Miles, biometrics program manager for Homeland Security, is for the final product to cost about $100 per DNA test, to take less than 90 minutes, and to prove kinship with a 99.5 percent accuracy.

The machines are “ruggedized,” so they do not have to be handled delicately — they can be dropped up to a foot in their case with no damage, he said. The software does not produce typical DNA results that must be read by a technician. Instead, it simply confirms whether there is direct kinship between two individuals.

The technology was supposed to have been launched in 2014, but ran into delays. An initial pilot program is expected to deploy in refugee camps in Thailand early in 2016; another may take place in Turkey, where the tests would be conducted on refugees from Iraq and Syria.

Even if such new technologies fail to gain widespread adoption, refugees admitted into the U.S. are already the most stringently screened of any visitor group in the country, according to Yungk.

Yungk said he’s somewhat baffled by the overwhelming concern about security risks associated with refugees coming to America, since refugees are already rigorously screened. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that as of mid-2014 there were more than 13 million refugees around the world. That year, the U.S. allowed 70,000 of them, or around half a percent, to enter the country.

The process takes about two years, he noted, and entails detailed interviews, three levels of background checks, three fingerprint screenings, contagious disease screening, and cultural orientation. And Iraqis and Syrians already must leap through hoops that their counterparts elsewhere do not: Their cases are reviewed at U.S. immigration headquarters, and in some cases are referred for additional review by DHS.

“I’ve really never met a Homeland Security person who takes national security lightly — that’s not the first description that comes to mind,” Yungk said. “We don’t fault people from worrying about security, but at the same time this is a highly secure process.”

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