Article from David Cronin for Inter Press Service published 13.11.2010, reproduced in full here:

BRUSSELS: Aid traditionally reserved for keeping victims of war and disasters alive may now be used for security-related projects such as the fingerprinting of refugees, European Union officials have decided.

Although the European Commission’s humanitarian office (ECHO) regularly publishes statements detailing how much food, medicines or blankets it gives to people in distress, it has drawn no attention to a widening in the scope of its activities in recent years. Through a partnership with the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the office has been financing the development of a computer system designed to store the fingerprints and other biometric data of refugees.

An internal ECHO paper from September 2009 suggests that support for such activities is necessary as part of an “innovative” approach towards improving the response of international agencies to crises.

But civil liberties activists are perturbed that humanitarian aid is being used to extend fingerprinting, a technique universally associated with criminal investigations, to refugee management projects. “If the EU wants to finance security projects, it should be doing so from money earmarked for security projects (rather than from humanitarian aid),” Ben Hayes from the organisation Statewatch told IPS.

Through a project known as Profile, the UNHCR has registered the fingerprints of more than 2.5 million refugees in some 20 countries since 2004. This project has received some four million euros (six million dollars) from the humanitarian aid section of the EU’s budget. As well as taking fingerprints, the UNHCR has stored images of the eyes of Afghan refugees who were returning to their home country after fleeing to neighbouring Pakistan. Identity documents are issued to refugees as part of the project, in cooperation with the governments in the countries where the refugees are located.

The UNHCR is also implementing a related project known as ProGres with the software giant Microsoft. While this relies mainly on basic data such as the names and birth dates of refugees, UNHCR sources say that biometric indicators are being stored in it on a trial basis in several countries. “There is considerable thought on expanding its use,” said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The UNHCR’s decision to resort to fingerprinting has been made despite previous concerns expressed by the organisation that refugees could be unfairly stigmatised if techniques associated with criminal investigations are widened to asylum and migration policies. The agency has, for example, been critical of the way the EU’s own system for fingerprinting asylum-seekers has evolved. Known as Eurodac, this system was originally confined to preventing asylum claims from being lodged in more than one EU member state, but the European Commission formally recommended last year that law enforcement agencies should have access to this database.

Gilles Van Moortel, the UNHCR’s Brussels spokesman, said that the agency has drawn up guidelines stating that police will not be able to scrutinise its fingerprinting files. “Sharing this kind of information for law enforcement purposes would not be in the keeping with the spirit of our work,” he added. “Our registration of asylum-seekers and refugees is purely being done for the purpose of international protection. While we fully understand the need for security, we are against the sharing of such data with law enforcement authorities.”

Hayes from Statewatch, however, described the UNHCR’s assurance as “meaningless”, given the history of the Eurodac system. “Once these things get big, their appeal for law enforcement agencies can become huge,” he added. “It becomes very difficult to resist calls that law enforcement agencies should have access to them.”

Ross Anderson, a specialist in computer technology with Cambridge University in Britain, said that while international aid organisations have long been involved in handing out ID cards, “poorly designed systems can do great harm.” He cited the situation in Rwanda during the 1990s, where people designated as Tutsis on official documents become victims of genocide, as an example of why great care is needed when ID systems are being set up.

John Clancy, the European Commission’s spokesman on humanitarian affairs, said that supporting the fingerprinting system is “not in any way a departure from ECHO’s traditional role” of providing emergency relief. “An effective registration system is crucial for refugees because it allows them to have their status clearly established and their rights respected,” he said. “They gain access to humanitarian assistance, social services in the host country and sometimes even local employment.”

Kathrin Schick from Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies (VOICE), a grouping of relief agencies, said that she had no difficulty with the principle of refugee registration. “It is very often forgotten by the person on the street that humanitarian aid is not just about food and milk,” she said. “It is also about ensuring that people are protected. It is very important to stress that humanitarian aid involves both protection and assistance.”

But Simon Stocker from the anti-poverty campaign group Eurostep said that the use of humanitarian aid for security projects “could be seen as compromising.” ECHO, he noted, is officially committed to ensuring that its activities are focused purely on relieving the distress of vulnerable people and that they are independent of more strategic political considerations.