EU Funds Biometric Tech Used for Returning African Migrants

A European Union development fund has financed biometric identity systems in Senegal and Ivory Coast, in some cases aimed at identifying undocumented citizens living in Europe and to organize their return, according to a report by Privacy International.

The system in Ivory Coast in part aims to “facilitate the identification of people genuinely of Ivorian nationality and to organize their return more easily,” one document says.

In a letter to various European commissioners, Privacy International called on the EU to reform or discontinue some development funds to “ensure they are not providing the tools of repression to governments around the world.” The letter was also signed by 11 other NGOs.

A European Commission spokesperson didn’t immediately comment.

Biometric identity systems link names, dates of birth and other personal information with physical characteristics like fingerprints, facial or iris scans, and have increasingly become vital for law enforcement. Interpol has worked with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in gathering biometric data to identify links with terrorist attacks.

While they can help establish someone’s legal identity, civil rights advocates warn that biometric identity systems, in particular facial recognition, can also facilitate discrimination or sometimes don’t work, leading to potentially harmful decisions. Even in the EU, biometric data is considered sensitive under the bloc’s tough data protection rules and can only be processed under strict conditions.

The EU Trust Fund for Africa allotted around 60 million euros ($70.1 million) to develop systems in the two countries, according to the documents published Wednesday by the U.K.-based non-profit organization. The funding in both cases was awarded to Civipol, a consulting firm for France’s interior ministry, which in turn supported governments in Senegal and Ivory Coast to modernize their national registry systems. In Senegal, Belgian development agency Enabel was also involved in the project.

Civipol and Enabel didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment outside of regular office hours.

Other documents published by the NGO showed how an EU law enforcement training agency teaches tactics to security authorities in third countries, including Algeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The methods include advising authorities to create fake social media profiles when researching users and outlining how to use some amateur hacking techniques.

“Instead of helping people who face daily threats from unaccountable surveillance agencies, including activists, journalists, and people just looking for better lives, this ‘aid’ risks doing the very opposite,” said Edin Omanovic, Privacy International’s advocacy director.

In 2016, the EU laid out plans for migration-control agreements with African and Middle Eastern countries, seeking to return more arrivals to their countries of origin or transit, address the root causes of forced displacement and limit migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea when smugglers’ boats capsize.

The documents published Wednesday didn’t detail the exact type of biometric identification files the funding covered. One of the main hurdles in organizing the return of migrants is due to fraudulent or lack of IDs, one EUTF document outlining the Ivorian project said. Modernizing the national registry systems would also help local citizens access social services.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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