Biometric purgatory: How the double registration of vulnerable Kenyan citizens in the UNHCR database left them at risk of statelessness
Source: Haki na Sheria Initiative (Garissa)
Although Kenya has made strides in citizenship documentation by eliminating gender discrimination from the law, disparities persist in the acquisition of registration documents. With the growth in population as well as expansion of social programmes, there is an increased demand for citizenship documentation to access these services. However, registration of persons is the exclusive role of national security and although some of the activities are decentralised, the final approval and printing of documents (such as the national identity card) is carried in Nairobi.
This report documents the lived experiences of a unique group – the victims of double registration. The problem of double registration can be traced back to the civil war in Somalia from 1991 as well as droughts in subsequent decades, resulting in an influx of Somali refugees into Kenya, the majority of whom were hosted in camps such as Dadaab, situated in the North Eastern region of Kenya on the border with Somalia.
In the period these camps have existed, many Kenyans from the host community routinely entered the refugee camps in pursuit of food aid, education, medical services and other opportunities that were available to refugees but not to the host community. From the late 2000s, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)introduced a biometric identification system for refugees. This database was shared with the Government of Kenya from 2012 and integrated with the register of persons, which contains fingerprints and other information of all registered Kenyan adults. It is estimated that about 40,000 of the people registered in the UNHCR database are Kenyan citizens, hence the term ‘double registration’. Many of these double registered people had their fingerprints taken during a long and devastating drought that ravaged the East African region between 2010 and 2012.
The issue of double registration affects mainly young people below the age of 40 years, the majority of whom are of Somali ethnicity. Many had their fingerprints taken by the UNHCR when they were children and, therefore, had not yet applied for a Kenyan national identity card (which is typically obtained at age 18). Those that have attained 18 years have had their application for the Kenyan national identity card rejected on account of their fingerprints being in the refugee database. The current law on the registration of persons does not have provisions on how to deal with such situations. The victims are in limbo with regard to their citizenship documentation.
With the long history of using the national identity card for identification in virtually every transaction in life, it is difficult to function as a Kenyan adult without this document. The victims of double registration feel that lack of the national identity card has confined them and limited their opportunities. They cannot engage in meaningful employment and many have therefore delayed starting families of their own. Others have been unable to pursue education as they cannot be registered in educational institutions without the all-important document. There are intersectional struggles for vulnerable people such as persons with disabilities, who are limited in the livelihoods they can pursue since a national identity card is the primary means of registering for welfare programmes. Without a national identity card, they cannot access social welfare assistance from Government. The lack of identity documentation affects not only them, but also future generations
since children cannot be registered for documents, such as a birth certificate or national identity card, without their parents’ documents. All these problems are exacerbated by the fact that Garissa, a border county, is highly securitised. One cannot even enter or leave the county without identification documentation. The lack of identity card confines victims of double registration and their children in multiple ways.
Furthermore, this report demonstrates how a bureaucratic decision about data sharing between the UNHCR and the Government of Kenya led to reduced opportunities for ordinary people. It demonstrates how the absence of involvement by data subjects, in this case refugees and the host community, led to a lack of understanding about the importance of fingerprinting and subsequently the risk of loss of citizenship. It also contains important lessons on data collection pertaining to children and the transition of that data as the children become adults.
It is hoped that the report contributes to public debate and discourse calling for greater care and attention to local nuances when designing and deploying digital and biometric technology by humanitarian actors.