Tafterjournal n. 119 - APRILE – MAGGIO 2022

Connected refugees: (liquid) surveillance or computer management of migration?


Rubrica: Metropolis

Parole chiave: , , , , ,



In the time of covid-19, a lack of data can mean social invisibility, the cancellation of fundamental rights, and death. In the current political and pandemic climate, in Italy, in Europe, and other countries around the world the migration discourse still creates huge public debates and conflicts between institutions and citizens. Despite this, for some years now, there has been discussion about the addition of new digital identity systems that would promote a more effective policy of collaboration and management of the migration phenomenon.

What is needed is a knowledge base on the technical and bureaucratic dangers, the difficulties of defending privacy and obtaining full and informed consent, and the challenges of identity data protection for all actors in the ecosystem. Institutions and stakeholders can use this knowledge to ensure that adequate technical and organizational safeguards are in place before digital identity systems are developed, implemented, and integrated.

This is the only way to realize the benefits of trusted socio-technical systems and at the same time protect the fundamental rights of vulnerable and marginalized populations. The new challenge for institutions today is to manage, also digitally, the phenomenon of international migration. Through an in-depth analysis of the international literature, we investigated the relationship between digital infrastructure, migration management, and surveillance, and possible technological, identity, and cultural risks.


Introduction: the case of Ethiopia

Civil societies around the world have begun to discover that the problem of invisibility always accompanies epidemics.

The covid-19 pandemic confronts us with a dilemma regarding invisible populations and migrants in particular. Being invisible often means not being able to access basic services, particularly health care. Access to testing and treatment requires health insurance, and to get it, one must be able to be counted. Even when the costs of this insurance are borne by the community, being counted remains essential.

The topic presented in this essay is very complex. We, therefore, start with a case study that is so recent which already shows us how long institutions have been discussing the issue of digital identity regarding migrants and how complex an issue it still is in today’s pandemic society.

In 2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officially announced a new digital identification (ID) program for refugees.

In 2017, the new program, known as the Biometric Identity Management System (BIMS), was subsequently introduced in dozens of countries, including Ethiopia.

Biometric registration allows refugees to secure a digital ID that allows them to access a range of rights and support services. Although digital IDs have potential benefits in terms of encouraging humanitarian response, their use has raised concerns about privacy and exclusion among refugees.

The UNHCR office in Ethiopia explained to Comunità Internazionale Global Voices during an interview that the BIMS system is an additional feature to refugee registration, which aims to improve refugee profiling as well as collect information to facilitate self-reliance and eventual inclusion.

The system has been integrated into the comprehensive individual registration process to ensure data integrity and quality; this is vital for refugees, as government-recognized documentation of identity can provide proof of legal identity, which is key to the legal, socio-economic and digital inclusion of refugees within host communities. This system also eliminates the risk of multiple registrations or identity theft.

BIMS is currently applied in all 26 refugee camps in Ethiopia, as well as some urban and other centers where refugees are sheltered.

Several refugees in the Jewish camp, located between the western region ( Hitsats) and the northern region of Tigray, told Global Voices that UNHCR staff never mentioned the disadvantages of biometric technology.

The digital registration process can save multiple characteristics including fingerprints, iris recognition, facial structure, and voice. The process, therefore, has raised concerns among refugees about an invasion of privacy (when data is shared with third parties) and exclusion from basic services in case of refusal.

When the technology was first introduced, most refugees were not aware of the potential risks of digital registration until a few people, the most educated in the camps, started talking about the repercussions.

Digital registration could lead to serious repercussions for refugees who do not want their information to be shared with their host country or country of origin for fear of discrimination, forced repatriation, or retaliation, some refugees told local journalists.

In Hitsat camp, Eritrean refugees who were in the army fear that the Ethiopian government may share their data with the Eritrean government.

Reportedly, biometric and personal data collected by UNHCR are shared with third parties, a claim that Gebregzabiher, the UNHCR official, later rejected, pointing out that refugee data are not shared with external parties. UNHCR’s data protection policies control the protection of all data owned by UNHCR.

What makes digital ID registration further risky is the fact that Ethiopia does not have laws specifically designed to address privacy and data protection issues, except for some regulations contained in several pieces of legislation that guarantee the right to privacy.

“UNHCR must respect the rights of every person undergoing the registration process,” one Eritrean refugee told Global Voices, also stressing the need to “understand why biometric data is collected and how it will be used, as well as the potential risks.”

It was made clear to refugees that a higher standard of registration would mean better protection, more targeted programming, greater data integrity, and protection from data fraud.

Refugees, who spoke to journalists of Global Voices Magazine, said that frustration with the potential risks of digital ID is growing in the camps and, as a result, there is a growing disdain for the unpopular digital identification system. In Hitsats camp, one refugee, who asked to remain anonymous, said:


 Initially, we were not aware of the risks of recognition. Many of us completed the biometric registration trusting in honesty and because of the trust we have for UNHCR and Ethiopia.


Another refugee, who also requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, said:


 The registration process does not include consent. Asking for consent is seen as a luxury. We register under the use of force because we have no other options to get food or protection.


Refugees were told that those who refuse to participate in digital registration are excluded from receiving UNHCR assistance such as food rations or any other assistance, essentially being given no choice but to submit to the process.

Several refugees in Hitsats and Jewish camps, who were contacted by Global Voices by phone, said they were uncomfortable with the newly introduced digital registration system and questioned its benefits.

One former Eritrean soldier, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about his safety, reported:

Contrary to what UNHCR staff say, the new digital registration system has not initiated any new package of special benefits. We are receiving the same assistance as before, such as food rations and other non-food items; I doubt that the new system will bring any benefits in terms of additional aid.

International community Global Voices later learned through its reporting that in the Jewi refugee camp, even followers of some Christian groups such as Protestants, the Messianic Jewish Church of God, and the Yawuhe congregation, refused the registration process on religious grounds.

Digital ID for refugees: towards a global system


About 10 years after the case described above, reported by Global Voices, there are now 1.1 billion people in the world who have no documents to prove their identity. Like many refugees, displaced persons or refugees fleeing from wars, persecution, or disasters.

But it is mainly through digital technology that the UN intends to solve this problem. The UN intends to create a global system by 2030 that will provide legal identity for every inhabitant of the planet, with the help of companies such as Accenture and Microsoft. This is because the migration policies applied so far have brought poor results in terms of social and cultural integration (Kymlicka 2012; Buoncompagni, D’Ambrosi 2020; Buoncompagni 2021).

A prototype developed by the two companies was presented during the meeting held on 19 June in New York concerning ID 2020, the United Nations summit dedicated to the legalization of digital identity with the presence of NGOs, tech companies, and government authorities.

The idea, which is part of the objectives of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, is to allow anyone to access their personal information through a new platform on cloud computing connected to the existing public or private systems of the various countries.

In short, no more passports, identity cards, birth certificates, or paper documents proving citizenship or asylum status. Everyone would be able to prove who they are, and where they come from, by providing proof of their legal existence, or have access to medical, banking, and educational data, by connecting themselves, wherever they are, to a universal digital network accessible via apps and mobile phones.

For the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Accenture has already developed a platform that allows individual refugees to be identified using biometric data relating to fingerprints, iris, and facial features. The new system, the security of which would be guaranteed by the use of blockchain technology, is a development of this project, which allows those who are registered to receive humanitarian assistance in refugee camps.

At this point, it is legitimate to consider identity, including digital identity, as a fundamental human need and right in an interconnected society.

Having a digital identity is a basic human right without which one is excluded from access to basic health, education, and banking services (UNHCR, 2019).

One-sixth of the world’s population, one-third of whom are children, mainly in Asia and Africa, pays the price for this deprivation.

But thanks to the digital system, those most in need, including refugees and displaced persons, would be able to receive the resources and medical care they need in the future. And, once authenticated on the global network, they would receive an official endorsement to confirm before any authority or agency data such as birth, citizenship, or level of education.

In recent years, governments, international organizations, multinationals and NGOs have increasingly sought to use digital technologies to trace the identities of migrants and refugees. This increase in identification technologies would seem to meet an urgent need.

 The UN Refugee Agency states that in today’s modern world, the lack of proof of a legal identity can limit a person’s access to services and socio-economic participation, including job opportunities, housing, a mobile phone and a bank account. This could be particularly problematic for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who rely on legal recognition for special protection and social inclusion (UNHCR, 2019).  We currently count 25.4 million refugees worldwide from their homes without formal identification, while many others have their identification documents stolen or destroyed during their journey (UNHCR, 2018).

The identity document of these individuals is like a “lifesaver”, which is why we could speak of “life-saving technologies” and “community digital” (Data&Society  2019; Buoncompagni, 2021).

The World Bank also argues that official proof of identity is a “key factor for access” to healthcare, education, food and other essential services.  Yet, globally, about 1 billion people still do not have government-issued identification. Addressing this challenge of identity inclusion has become a priority for the international community.

Unlike traditional forms of state-recognized identity, which are based on government registrations or physical forms of identification, digital identity relies on data required for biometrics, service-related identifiers or online profiles.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has implemented a biometric programme in Jordan that requires refugees to use eye scanners to receive cash assistance; Stanford researchers have developed an algorithm that claims to help organisations place refugees in communities for resettlement based on their background data (Shashkevich, 2018).

The World Food Programme has partnered with Mastercard to provide refugees with so-called ‘cashless e-cards’, which they can use to purchase necessary goods. Coalitions such as Alliance ID2020, (2019), composed of governments, non-profit organisations, universities, companies and UN agencies, have been set up to consider “how to provide a single digital identity to all inhabitants of the planet” (Technology companies serving the general public are also involved, as migrants use various digital products and platforms such as Facebook or Google Maps, as part of their daily lives. European agencies such as Frontex and Europol monitor social media to gather information on migration, particularly concerning monitoring human trafficking.

In the context of migrants and refugees, technological systems that categorize or misclassify can leave individuals out of a protected class, such as asylum seekers, or influence their allocation of goods or services, such as food, shelter or legal assistance. As the NGO Privacy International explains, these systems can become tools of surveillance by the state and the private sector; they can exclude, rather than include.

These dangers can erode human dignity, autonomy and action. Digital identification systems can threaten fundamental rights to privacy, assembly, expression, movement, human security, employment and others (Eubanks, 2018).



Risk level and infrastructure for the (digital) security of migrants


When governments, international organizations, or NGOs use digital technologies for migration management, they add a new socio-technical layer that can exacerbate regional, national, and local power imbalances and lead to discrimination and stigmatization, thus increasing the precariousness of already vulnerable groups (Data&Society, 2019).

The logic that digital identity is a lifeline for needy groups has been used, for example, to justify India’s national identification system, Aadhaar. This system collects various types of biometric information so that every Indian citizen can prove his or her identity to access services. However, the system has also excluded some: because it relies on biometrics for authentication, those who do not have readable fingerprints, such as manual laborers, now find it difficult to access government services (Goel, 2018).

 Despite the fundamental right to privacy, people have little choice but to surrender their data, and the system has already suffered high-profile data breaches. This raises the question of who has the power to say no to the collection of identity data, a question that also applies more directly to migrants and refugees seeking access to European borders.

As digital identity systems multiply around the world, digital rights organisation Access Now said that ‘digital ID, applied on a large scale, poses one of the most serious human rights risks of any technology we have known so far.

Migrants very often give identification data to resources without any full awareness and free consent. Privacy, informed consent, and data protection are compromised throughout the identification process (Data&Society 2019).

Systemic cultural and bureaucratic biases present obstacles that are likely to prevent the equitable development and integration of digital identity systems.

Trust is lacking in socio-technical systems that are intertwined with identity. Cultural mediators can be uniquely positioned in the system to build trust and literacy around the rights to privacy and informed consent. Moreover, if NGOs collecting identity data were to develop cultural capacity and resources, they can become ready access points to strengthen data protection for migrant and refugee beneficiaries.

Urgent open questions remain to be explored before new digital identity systems are mandated in the current migration context. Without a stronger evidence base and appropriate safeguard, new digital identity systems could amplify the risks and damage to the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations in Italy and elsewhere.



Connected Refugees in the European public space



It can be difficult to keep track of the ecosystem of actors, organizations and technologies involved in the collection and processing of migrant and refugee identity data, but institutions could envisage the positive potential of identity data collection: it can be used to provide services that are consistent across time and space, such as health care from one refugee to another.  Consistent data can also reduce the number of times migrants have to tell their life stories to service-providing organizations. For migrant job seekers, for example, data on their credentials can be used to match them with employers, leading to financial inclusion and economic empowerment.

But these same technologies can also lead to unintended dangers. Migrants may face social stigma or xenophobia in host communities, leading to special privacy and security concerns. Like other marginalized groups, migrants may also be excluded, or actively avoided, from social support systems if they feel they are being monitored through technology. For migrants seeking access to even the most basic resources, the price to pay often involves handing over information about their identity.

In Europe, the collection of identity data is governed by numerous policies, which create huge power differentials between governments and migrants with implications in areas such as social protection, privacy and consent. In recent years, the EU has sought to limit both the number of migrant arrivals and the number of those who can avail themselves of residence permits. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), although the total number of arrivals in Europe has decreased since the climax of more than one million in 2015, Europe remains the world’s most dangerous destination for irregular migrants (IOM, 2019).

We now count many deaths in the Mediterranean: 3,771 in 2015, 5,143 in 2016 and 3,139 in 2017 as highlighted by Human Rights Watch which noted the absence of safe humanitarian corridors for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as “policies aimed at limiting arrivals and outsourcing responsibilities to regions and countries outside the EU”(HRW, 2016).

The European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) manages surveillance of the Mediterranean Sea using drones and satellite tools. Rather than personally identifying migrants and refugees, to whom they should then provide humanitarian protection, Eurosur stretches the physical borders outwards by identifying only ‘illegal’ migrants on boats and tries to prevent them from reaching EU shores.

For those arriving on European territory, the EU has developed several large-scale IT systems for digital identification. The European Fingerprinting System (Eurodac) collects biometric data and manages its database (ECM,2018). Fingerprints are requested from migrants upon arrival when they cross internal borders and potentially during any possible contact with a police or border official.

No informed consent is required to use Eurodac, and border officials are authorized, if necessary, to use physical or psychological coercion to obtain fingerprints from adult migrants.  Eurodac was proposed as a policy to be applied to minors but was opposed by several UN member states and international organisations. The European Commission reduced the minimum age for biometric collection from 14 years to 6 years for unaccompanied minors and extended the duration of data retention from 18 months to 5 years.

One of the most significant policies affecting refugees is the ‘Dublin Regulation’, which defines the process for collecting data from asylum seekers in Europe (ECM, 2018). The EU Regulation No.604/2013 of the European Parliament and the Council states that “The Member States shall examine any application for international protection lodged by a third-country national or stateless person on their territory”. This means that identity data is often collected where ‘the applicant first lodged his/her application for international protection in a Member State’ (Data&Society, 2019).

Many asylum seekers do not wish to remain in the first country of entry, often Greece and Italy, but seek transit to other destinations in western and northern Europe. Migrants who decide to continue their journey to other European countries risk living in fear of being tracked down and sent back to their first country of arrival and are informally referred to as ‘Dublined’ (Reaidy, 2017).

This does not necessarily mean obtaining meaningful informed consent before undertaking data collection. The Member State in which a migrant seeks protection must provide information on the objectives and purposes of the regulation, which requires that this information be provided in a language the asylum seeker understands. However, as will be discussed below, it is not clear whether migrants are in a position to fully understand the legal information provided to them.

These challenges present a worrying trend, particularly in Europe, where the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has enshrined the key point of data protection laws: there must be a legal basis for the collection of a natural person’s data, and all such activities are subject to the law. Legal requirements include informed consent and the right to understand the logic behind the data collection process and the consequences of automated decisions.

 But if the authorities collecting personal data are not able to provide, in plain language, an explanation of the right to protection of one’s data, these remain unfulfilled.

The main gap in this complex issue lies mainly in the lack of a coherent policy guiding the use of identification technologies by other actors, such as international organizations and the aforementioned NGOs, who identify, monitor or provide services to migrants. Although there are some regulations at EU level, such as the Dublin Regulation and the GDPR, the exact way in which Member States implement these rules may differ. Any organization seeking to help, monitor, serve or interact with migrants may comply with these laws differently, thus offering very different ‘help’ to migrants, with sometimes deviant or criminal traits (Data&Society, 2019).

Let us also not forget, as sociologist Sarah Brayne (2017) argues, that shunning a socially and legally recognized system denotes the practice of individuals (migrants in this case) to avoid those institutions that hold formal records. Most foreign individuals who are wary of forms of surveillance may deliberately and systematically avoid the institutional contact that would put them in the information system, due to the fear of being subjected to enhanced surveillance, thus increasing the risk of being detected by the authorities.





Government actors in Europe should unambiguously implement a well-designed and comprehensive digital identity system to help migrants integrate into social systems such as healthcare or housing.

NGOs are also an important part of the digital identity ecosystem. Organizations that collect data have a wide variety of data accountability practices. Before organizations implement consent forms, they and the authorities need to be clear with migrants and with themselves about what data they are collecting, why they are collected, for how long, how they are used, and which are the risks: social media and other technology companies are involved in collecting data from migrants and refugees.

Working to achieve trustworthy systems can provide an answer to the dilemma of weighing trade-offs between risks and dangers. For any digital identity system to work, trust must be achieved between both data holders and data subjects, but in the case of migrants and refugees, there are good reasons for a lack of trust between the parties. Some migrants actively avoid interacting with government services due to fears that data collection will enforce policies that are increasingly harsh and discriminatory towards migrants and refugees in Italy. While migrants continue to use social media and mobile technologies, they may also be wary of data collected by open-source platforms (UNHCR 2019; IOM 2020).

This is why there is a need instead for a new knowledge base on the reality of bureaucratic and technical harms, the difficulties of maintaining the privacy and obtaining free and full informed consent, and the challenges of protecting identity data in the ecosystem.

Institutions and stakeholders can use this knowledge to ensure that adequate technical and policy-relevant safeguards are in place before digital identity systems are developed and deployed to address migration and refugee management and protect the fundamental rights of vulnerable and marginalized populations.

There are still pressing issues to be explored and tested before new digital identity systems are imposed in the current migration context. Without specific legislation on the topic, applied to the migration context, and without a more robust scientific and technical evidence base and appropriate safeguards, new digital identity systems could amplify the risks and damage to the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in Europe and worldwide.

What makes what has been said so far even more topical is the analysis carried out by Shoshana Zuboff (2019), who describes the structures of the new form assumed by capitalism at the time of the network and of large computer platforms, which, based on what has been explained above, fully involves the phenomenon of migration.

Surveillance capitalism is not a technology: it is a logic that permeates technology and transforms it into action. Surveillance capitalism is a form of market unimaginable outside the digital context, but it does not coincide with the digital (Zuboff, 2019).


The technological transformation that has seen the internet forcefully enter our daily lives has not had the development that the most optimistic imagined, it has not only been the space for new global social ties inspired by collective well-being and peaceful coexistence between different peoples and different cultures, but it has generated new forms of risk linked to connection, disinformation and identity protection, as well as the birth of a new form of economic organization based on the accumulation of data by the giants of global information technology, only apparently making us all more visible.

As already mentioned in the introductory part of the research work, the Covid-19 pandemic has confronted institutions and citizens around the world with a major dilemma regarding vulnerable ‘invisible’ populations.

The presence of serious public health problems has further highlighted existing social inequalities, creating an even more hostile atmosphere in terms of access to serological testing, health facilities, sanitation, food and emergency institutional information by people in economic hardship or irregular migrants.

The condition of invisibility has generated not only the exclusion of some subjects but also a serious asymmetry from an economic and labor point of view that fuels forms of racism and xenophobia, making those institutional – intercultural strategies and actions, described above, that aim to achieve greater inclusion ineffectively:


 Invisibles are less inclined to ask for help when they detect the symptoms of Covid-19, this could be due to their tendency to associate the health system with repressive authorities, their poor language skills and the fragmentation of social networks (Pelizza, Lausberg, Milan 2020).


Reflecting on these aspects, Zuboff’s reasoning regarding ‘surveillance capitalism’, the obligation to be digitally tracked and the management of data by public institutions, has a rather obvious limitation.

The scholar’s argument does not seem to work for vulnerable and invisible populations. The state of public visibility of irregular migrants could undoubtedly discourage exploitation and accelerate regularisation processes, but not if restored through the adoption of policies based on obligations and fears.

The question, which is still open, is how to create a condition of “fair” visibility for migrants, which does not include obligations and total control of data and which recognizes and permanently guarantees civil rights.

According to some scholars (Pelizza, Lausberg, Milan 2020; IOM 2020), the scenario of health and economic crisis could help governments to identify and track irregular migrants through a form of ‘de facto civic inclusion’ by taking full advantage of the digital system, an infrastructural and political way of recognizing migrants as members of a community, with access to services such as health and social care.

A necessary first step would be to collect and process personal data in compliance with the principles contained in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), i.e. the right to be deleted from any database and not to be tracked beyond their original purpose, as the registration and identification systems used at borders already provide for the retention of data on people on the move

 This first phase of intervention would be particularly important to protect not only vulnerable populations but also their host societies by avoiding discrimination in the future.


The positive outcome of this first phase would help the collection and insertion of ‘invisible’ migrants’ data into a health or social assistance database in a non-invasive way, respecting privacy, and would allow the negotiation of the first agreement between institutions, public, non-profit and health organisations to guarantee the security and ethical management of personal data, avoiding any attempt of centralization by private companies or state authorities.

The new issue to be resolved, which once again involves digital infrastructure, migrant subjects and institutions, concerns the possibility of guaranteeing the ‘invisible’ the status of visibility through paths of inclusion that include in particular a clear communication policy and strategic and ethical use of ICTs and personal information.

This will also be necessary after the covid-19 pandemic so that data integration can foster cultural integration by reducing episodes of surveillance and exploitation, leaving room for new forms of dialogue and participation.



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