Iris-scan system for refugees: aid in the blink of an eye

Biometric eye-scan project allows refugees to take cash handouts through iris scans.

Photo by: UNHCR
Photo by: UNHCR

A Syrian refugee scans her iris at a branch of Cairo Amman Bank in the Jordanian capital. Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR.

Updated Jun 2, 2016

War, natural disasters and gang violence...These are a few of the reasons why so many people risk their lives to make it to a safer country, searching for a better life. 

In 2016 alone almost 200,000 people who were forced to flee their countries arrived to European shores. And at least 1,475 people have died making this dangerous journey in the same period of time. More than 4.8 million refugees now live in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

Most of the refugees don’t even have a chance to say goodbye to the ones they leave behind and don’t have the chance to take their belongings with them.

Many of them leave behind very important documents, which they later need to use to settle in their new life.

Often those who make "impossible choices" do not find the better life they are looking for even when they pack those documents into their bulk bags instead of essential needs such as food or medicine.  

What makes their journey to foreign lands harder is the risk of losing crucial belongings such as identity cards, diplomas and ATM cards.

The United Nation’s Refugee Agency UNHCR first presented it’s eye-scan system in 2008, aimed at sending money to refugees who were granted funding without the need for any cards or procedures.

The agency says the fast-spreading eye-scan project provides privacy to refugees by protecting personal information, brings the risk of fraud to zero and saves refugee fund money by reducing the costs.

TRT World spoke with UNHCR’s Common Cash Facility Director Elizabeth Barnhart to discuss the details of the project.

UNHCR’s Common Cash Facility Director Elizabeth Barnhart explains the iris-scan system on May 24, 2016, Istanbul, Turkey.

TRT World: Can you tell us a little about the iris scan system?

Elizabeth Barnhart: We (UNHCR) are the only ones in this world to do this kind of project. We collected the iris data of all asylum seekers above the age of three in the five country area in the Middle East region - Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. That gives us a very rich databank to use for operational purposes such as our cash assistance programme.

Most of the refugees in Jordan have been living inside cities, towns and villages for years and years. They don’t live in camps. So their cash has now been depleted. They need cash to be able to pay rent, water and electricity. So we are giving them cash assistance on a monthly basis instead of doing it in a costly way, like distributing ATM cards, which can be traded, sold and many things can go wrong with.

We are using a biometric system. We have a secure network connection between the ATM and our iris databank from registration. So when you scan your eye at the machine, if you are a refugee who got cash assistance from UNHCR, it is UNHCR that is identifying you and authenticating your payment. We haven’t shared that information with the bank. The system is both secure and protects the personal information of refugees. It is incredibly cost effective, efficient and reduces fraud to zero.

UNHCR official explains the eye-scan system, May 24, 2016, Istanbul, Turkey.

TRT World: Is UNHCR’s eye scan system in use now? 

Barnhart: It has been used for three years and it’s working beautifully. We assist 32,000 families every month.

TRT World: We know that many people tend to donate clothes or goods to refugees instead of cash. What do you think is better?

Barnhart: Here's what happens. When you give people things that they don’t want, they then sell them at a discounted price in order to get the money. So they can buy what they need. But, your neighbours – who are local shopkeepers – are now taking a loss because somebody is buying almost free stuff rather then going a shopkeeper. And it doesn’t make for good relations.

So when we give money to refugees that allows them to go out and spend it in the local economy, which makes them good neighbours. It makes them a part of the economy. And remember, most of the refugees live in Jordan on the economy. Eighty percent of them – over a half million –live in Jordanian towns and cities. Only twenty percent live in refugee camps.

A UN worker scans the iris of a Syrian girl registering as a refugee at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

TRT World: How do you determine the amount of cash you give to refugees? Is the amount  given to all refugees the same?

Barnhart: No it is not. It’s based on the situation: such as how vulnerable they are, whether they have specific family issues, members of family, numbers of children. All of those types of things go into a very complicated formula which gives us a criteria for how much money they should get.

TRT World: And where is the money coming from to the UNHCR? Only from donations?

Barnhart: Yes, we get all of our donations from either from the UN family or other donors like the United States Government, the British Government, European Union, the Qatari Government and other places give money as well as the private donations. So we get money from all different places in order to assist the refugees.

Author: Bilge Nesibe Kotan