Iris solution helps refugees glimpse a brighter future
22 December 2015 09:53 GMT

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By Craig Guthrie, deputy editor

Syrian refugees aren’t just forced to leave cherished family members, property and valuables behind in often perilous journeys to escape the deadly conflict, they also need to relinquish established identities at the border.

Perhaps a lawyer, doctor or farmer in their homeland, as a refugee they can face the frightening prospect of being nameless and penniless in a foreign land.

In Jordan, a biometrics-backed project launched by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is helping to restore at least part of this lost dignity.

Using an iris recognition system linked to ATMs, UNHCR has created an innovative aid distribution network that has so far given more than a third of the unprecedented 630,000 refugees in the country access to vital monthly cash assistance.

The system, which uses the “EyeBank” iris recognition solution developed by biometric firm IrisGuard, in tandem with Cairo Amman Bank’s ATM network, helps grants of 100 dinars (US$140) reach refugees every month.

“This biometric system is revolutionary,” UNHCR Representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, told Planet Biometrics. “It has enabled us to manage one of the largest refugee populations of recent times.”

Previously, recipients faced a potentially distressing trip to UNHCR offices to queue for pay-outs.

“The last thing refugees want to do is stand in our offices, humiliated by having to ‘beg’ for assistance,” said Harper. “We want refugees to feel as normal a part of the community as possible, and this system enables that while cutting our overhead and staffing costs to almost zero.”

Opportunistic middle-men preying on the new arrivals would previously sell them goods, perhaps pilfered from charities, at a scandalous mark-up. The trend not only worsened poverty and hunger among refugees, it also undermined donor confidence. 

“This system has been a godsend in terms of preventing fraud and increasing accountability at a time when donors are asking for more transparency,” said Harper.

The use of iris data is vital because while PIN numbers or cards could be sold or traded - biometrics cannot and the agency can prove categorically to donors that their funds are reaching the right person.

The only costs incurred in the process are standard 2% banking fees, meaning that donors can send funds directly from the agency’s website and be certain that 98% of the donation is reaching the refugees directly.

In legacy aid systems, Harper notes that refugees would receive up to just 40% of the funds granted due to the costs of tendering, procuring, transporting and distribution.

“This is why other agencies are looking at what we are doing and trying to replicate it.”

IrisGuard, the company behind the iris-scanning technology, has also been recognised for the innovation involved: In November, EyeBank was awarded best humanitarian project at the Payments Awards summit in London for its success in promoting financial inclusion.

Speaking at the ceremony, Joe O’Carroll, Senior IrisGuard Vice President said: “Millions of displaced Syrian refugees rely on timely international financial assistance to survive and we will continue to serve the various United Nations organizations in providing humanitarian financial inclusion and cash payment systems in the most dignified manner.”

To-date, more than 1.8 million refugees have already been enrolled in Eyebank.

The system’s use of biometrics and secure cloud storage has proved vital in its expandability. Because it relies on secure cloud storage of unique human characteristics, the iris-scanning ATM network can conceptually be ‘piggybacked’ by other charity agencies.

To ensure this expandability and mass accessibility, however, the UNHCR faced a challenge in selecting a biometric modality with the maximum enrolment potential.

Although iris as a biometric modality has previously faced criticism for perceived intrusiveness, Harper said it easily proved the best option for his team.

 “Fingerprints develop over time, and only really mature when people are 13 or 14,” said Harper. “This is useless to us because we are dealing with a population that is predominantly children.”

Evidence of the utility of iris biometrics in mass enrolment scenarios has been made clear by its use in India as part of the  Aadhaar ID number project. There, some 1.2 billion citizens are having their unique iris characteristics registered as part of a vast financial inclusion project.

Harper said: “In Jordan and the wider Middle East, UNHCR has to cast its registration net as wide as possible. Refugees can, on average, spend decades outside their country, and the children we are registering now are likely to be adults when they return.”

While there is ongoing debate in the biometrics industry over whether aging can have an impact on the stability of iris biometrics, Harper is certain that the security advantages inherent in iris far outweigh the risks in comparison to say, fingerprints.

“If a refugee moves from Jordan to Egypt and presents himself under a different name or documents, they also may even attempt to destroy their own fingerprints. By using iris we would still identify that person in a matter of seconds.”

The solution’s many uses in terms of security and monitoring is another dimension that is currently being explored - and the US government is interested in its success. Meanwhile, Harper adds that there are already plans to expand the project’s scope beyond Jordan.

With the EU predicting that three million more migrants and refugees will arrive in member states by the end of 2016 – and given the challenges in fingerprinting them all –  this solution has higlighted that iris biometrics could become an important player in high-volume mass migration enrolment.