Keeping an eye on refugees

At the embattled border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees project (UNHCR) is using a modern solution to solve a problem as old as war itself: making sure aid is distributed equally to those displaced by conflict. The agency is employing iris scanners to ensure that refugees who apply for aid in one of the designated registration centres have not done so before.

An iris recognition camera at a UNHCR test centre takes an iris image, or code, when a refugee files for humanitarian assistance. The system then send the image to a local server and scans the database to determine whether the unique iris code has already been stored. If not, the refugee is registered, the iris code is stored in the database and a customer information number (CIN) confirms the enrollment. If the refugee’s iris code is already in the database, the system returns an alarm and the person’s original CIN number. This registration and recognition process takes 20 seconds.

The United Nations refugee agency uses an iris scan system to register aid recipients like these Afghan men at a U.N. food centre in Kabul, Afghanistan. The test phase of the iris recognition refugee enrollment system started at the UNHCR voluntary repatriation centre in Takhta Baig, Pakistan, in September 2002. The project’s primary objective was to enroll all adult refugees. Within three weeks, there were 15,000 refugees registered. Now the database holds more than 100,000. Data is synchronized between all local servers every 24 to 48 hours so that all locations have current copies of all registered refugee iris scans in order to prevent multiple enrollments at different iris registration centres.

“Because we work in the harshest of conditions, much of our attention goes to keeping the systems up and running and maintaining the installation,” says Machiel van der Harst, head of BioID Technologies, the Swiss company that developed the application and manages the enrollment operation with local staff.