Gateway Or Barrier? The Contested Politics Of Humanitarian Biometrics

Published: 11/Jan/2021
Source: Data Rights Africa

By Keren Weitzberg

‘I do not have any documentation that shows that I am a Kenyan,’ Adan lamented. ‘My children have a birth certificate that says: “single parent”. It’s like I had died. And yet I am alive.’

Adan is among tens of thousands of northern Kenyans who cannot obtain a national ID because their details appear on the government’s biometric refugee database. The Somali civil war brought hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Kenya in the early 1990s. The influx of asylum seekers coincided with periodic droughts in northern Kenya, one of the country’s most politically and economically marginalized regions. In the intervening years, many ethnic Somali Kenyans slipped into the refugee system, falsely claiming to be escaping the civil war in order to access vital food aid, education, health care, or the coveted opportunity to relocate abroad. Now, because their fingerprints are captured on refugee databases, the very system responsible for protecting asylum seekers has effectively rendered them stateless.

Without an ID in Kenya, many basic economic and political rights are out of reach. One cannot move about freely, open a bank account, register a SIM card, access an M-Pesa mobile money wallet, enter into government and corporate offices, or gain formal employment. To prevent their children from experiencing a similar fate, Adan and his wife decided not to declare paternity on their birth certificates.

According to many civil society groups, Adan is a victim of double registration. The problem of double registration greatly accelerated after the Kenyan government, with support from the UNHCR, took over the refugee registration process in the country. This facilitated greater data consolidation and interoperability across the refugee and national systems. Nowadays, Kenya’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) includes the biometrics of all registered refugees, which can be run against the citizen registry. The National Registration Bureau is able to cross-check the fingerprints of those who apply for a national ID, effectively shutting the door of citizenship to anyone found on the refugee database.

Those caught between the refugee and citizenship systems have few modes of redress. This speaks to longstanding patterns of discrimination against northerners and Somalis, who are widely perceived to be a demographic and security threat within the country. Only amidst mounting pressure from northern MPs and civil society groups did the Kenyan government agree to vet those claiming to be citizens. Late last year, Adan was one of thousands of Kenyans who passed through this vetting process in the hopes of being deregistered from the refugee database. But in spite of years of government promises, Adan and many like him are still awaiting a resolution to their insecure, liminal status

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Themes: ID Documents and Passports, Nationality and Refugees
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2021