‘Leave no one behind’ in the context of the United Nations’ (UN) humanitarianism poses a noble ideal yet a challenging practice, writes Salla Turunen, Doctoral Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).
The term ‘leave no one behind’ is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted by UN member states in 2015, and the phrase is often used in the humanitarian realm. Turunen explores this concept in two recently published CMI working papers.
In the first publication, “Conceptualising ‘Leave No One Behind‘”, Turunen examines how this term is conceptualised and the political dimensions that lie behind it. It is argued that the objective of leaving no one behind seems unattainable in contexts where humanitarian needs are overwhelming and humanitarian actors have limited resources and access, and that instead of aiming to ‘leave no one behind’, the issue, rather, is who to leave behind and on what grounds.
The European Union (EU) often appears to look to Australia as a country that has successfully managed to seal its maritime borders and control migration. This has been most concretely demonstrated by Denmark’s newly passed legislation, which allows for the relocation of asylum seekers to third countries while their applications are being processed. This raises concerns and expectations that other countries might follow suit.
In this latest Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) policy brief, Ayşe Bala Akalm (Research Assistant, PRIO) and NCHS Co-Director Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (Research Director, PRIO) demonstrate why seeking to emulate the Australian model of offshore processing of asylum seekers is not a good idea. In particular, Akalm and Jumbert argue that offshore processing would breach a number of fundamental human rights principles upon which the EU is built.
Download a copy of the policy brief “The EU and Offshore Asylum Processing: Why Looking to Australia Is Not a Way Forward” here.
This text is based on an op-ed written by Arne Strand (Deputy Director, CMI and Director, U4) and Astri Suhrke (Associated Research Professor, CMI), first published in Bistandsaktuelt. This op-ed has been updated by the authors and translated into English. You can access the original Bistandsaktuelt publication in Norwegian here.
Afghanistan is facing a combined political and humanitarian crisis. A new escalation of the conflict will be detrimental to the many Afghans who are still heavily reliant on aid, says Arne Strand and Astri Suhrke.
The Taliban control Kabul and almost all of the country. Western embassies and some humanitarian aid workers have been evacuated. Meanwhile, the UN and the Norwegian Refugee Council, among others, have reminded us of the desperate plight of many Afghans.
The new political situation has produced new challenges for aid organisations, in both the short- and long-term, that call for realism, but also dialogue, commitment and a solid dose of strategic pragmatism.
The political situation changed dramatically from an ongoing discussion regarding a possible solution between the opposing parties when President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul. The Taliban was suddenly in possession of both political and military power; with control on the ground in Kabul they had presumed authority over the state. The situation materialised quicker than anticipated, and much remains uncertain regarding the Taliban’s politics and vision for the state and government.
The first signs from the Taliban political administration are uplifting. They claim they will give amnesty to their enemies and include women in the government. They say that girls have the right to education and women to work, as long as it is consistent with Islam and Sharia. The signals could be tactical; many dare not believe in Taliban promises given their past record. Some choose to join the military and political opposition that had been declared in Panjshir Valley.
Need to strengthen the Afghan state apparatus
It is unclear to what degree the central leadership can control the commanders in the rest of the country. The Taliban is a decentralised organisation where military commanders have relative strong autonomy in their respective territories. Yet they accepted the temporary ceasefire that the leadership declared and did not attack international soldiers during their withdrawal.
The Taliban is an Islamic movement that will rely on a traditional and conservative interpretation of Islam in the execution of the state power they now hold. To run a functional state of Afghanistan, more is needed. There is a need for both internal and external legitimacy, skilled bureaucrats, and professionals in central and local state administrations. There is a need for both the presence of aid organisations and financial support over time.
There are some positive signals. Several governments have indicated they will continue to provide humanitarian support via the UN and major international NGOs. A UN-sponsored conference to secure funding for humanitarian assistance is schedule to be held in Geneva on September 13. The questions is if it will be enough, and if it will be more than a temporary band aid.
Afghanistan is facing a desperate situation on many fronts – humanitarian, development and rights. The difficulties have been compounded by large internal migration, a continuous drought, a pandemic that is out of control, as well as the consequences of the escalating armed conflict earlier this year. Nepotism and corruption in the state apparatus weakened programs to address the human toll. Health workers reportedly had not been paid for several months.
The UN and other organisations have long issued warnings about of the situation. A large part of the population – approximately 47 percent in 2020 – are living below the poverty line. Without aid, this percentage will drastically increase. It is estimated that 16 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The Norwegian Refugee Council earlier this year stated that there were 3.5 million internally displaced persons; the number is undoubtedly higher today. Many have arrived in Kabul during the last weeks and need acute emergency aid. Although the armed conflict has ended, many will not dare to go home immediately.
To avoid a humanitarian crisis, there is a need for both financial support and people on the ground. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that earlier investments, especially programs built up over the past years in health and education, are maintained. Although many international aid workers have left the country, Afghan aid workers are present. Many have experience that will be essential in negotiating and cooperating with the Taliban locally, especially in matters of conflicting understanding of rights, principles and program criteria of effectiveness. It is important to note that during the first Taliban emirate – in the late 1990s – the Taliban registered around 250 Afghan NGOs and a large number of educated Afghans went to work for these aid organisations. It is a pattern that may be repeated.
UNICEF-agreement is opening for education
Future aid programs will likely also build on agreements developed over the past decade between international humanitarian and aid actors and the Taliban for work in areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban. In 2007, agreements for running community schools were made, based on multiparty cooperation among the Taliban at the central and local level, the government Ministry of Education, UNICEF, and local traditional authorities. Last year’s agreement between UNICEF and the Taliban on education followed this model. Such arrangements in turn draw on experiences from the 1990’s. Back then, a German NGO supported schools with 10 000 students in Kabul. Half of the students were girls. The Swedish Afghanistan Committee reported agreement with the Taliban’s ministry of education that enabled them to support schools with 200 000 students, of which 37 000 were girls. The Norwegian Church Aid financed a range of local schools, also for girls.
UNICEF’s agreement and similar arrangements are obviously based on the condition of external financing and a degree of Taliban control over the curriculum and recruitment of teachers. A continuation of such cooperation may be the easiest way to keep rural schools running in the transition period – which could be long.
This model may also be relevant for other sectors, especially within health and higher education. After assuming governmental power, the Taliban have consistently requested foreign assistance and recently stressed they would provide security for humanitarian workers. Their spokesman has already declared in their first press conference in Kabul that they are more than willing to speak with donor countries to boost the economy and rebuild the country. They also said that developments could go through community organisations. This could be an option for countries who are skeptical to channel aid through the Taliban-government.
Cooperation will be easier for all parties if the government ministries keep their staff. The WHO early on declared it would cooperate with the ministry of health, which was made easier because the Taliban encouraged the previous minister to continue. If such pragmatic solutions are chosen at the province and district level, as the Taliban did last time they were in control, much activity could start.
Some donor countries will cut aid, or possibly prioritise neighbouring countries that are receiving refugees, as the German Foreign Minister initially declared. The UN’s humanitarian organisations are ready to continue. UNICEF has stated they will remain, and large humanitarian NGO’s such as MSF (Doctors Without Borders) have stated that they are in place. But for more extensive engagements, especially where humanitarianism crosses into development aid, political will is required first and foremost to engage with the new Taliban administration.
Taliban’s promises are met with distrust
A diverse government that includes women and minorities will make international cooperation more feasible, but it is unclear whether this will happen. The general inclination of most political parties to rely primarily on their own cadres or close affiliates when forming a government is in this case reinforced by decades of warfare and deep socio-political divisions in the country, as well as the apparent strong sense among the Taliban of forming a distinct movement.
Both within and outside the country, there is a lot of distrust in the Taliban. The US, IMF and several donor countries reacted initially by suspending financial transactions. Members of the defeated government mobilised the military and asked for help internationally in their fight against “terrorists”. The resistance in the Panjshir Valley was by early September hard pressed militarily by the Taliban and both sides agreed to talk. Demonstrations in the cities continued intermittently, however. There were shootings in Kabul and other cities when people wanted to switch the white emirate-flag with the Afghan flag.
Women’s and human rights activists are skeptical about the rights that women have been promised. By early September, women in three major cities – Kabul, Herat and Mazaar – were demonstrating. Some protest marches were forcefully broken up by the Taliban. A strict enforcement on media coverage or social media could trigger further demonstrations in cities.
More generally, there is a concern that the Taliban will not keep their promise of amnesty to those who worked for the previous regime and will strike back at them or prevent them from leaving the country, as happened to the Taliban after they were forced out in 2001.
The possibilities for sharp disagreements and conflict are numerous. Western countries could well be tempted to respond by tightening political sanctions and refusing all but basic humanitarian aid in order to force the Taliban to change. Experience from the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan was that such pressures had a counter-productive effect by further isolating the movement and galvanizing its determination not to yield to foreign dictates. Moreover, a new round of escalation and sanctions will not help the many Afghans that are still strongly dependent on foreign aid.
For seven years, Yemen has been devastated by civil war. As a result, the country is facing the looming threat of fragmenting into different statelets. In his lecture, Minister Dr. Ahmed bin Mubarak explored the current political, economic and security priorities and outlined his vision for a comprehensive and sustainable peace for all of Yemen.
The Minister was welcomed by Henrik Urdal, PRIO Director. The Minister’s lecture was followed by Q&A session, chaired by Kristian Berg Harpviken, Director of the PRIO Middle East Centre.
You can now view a recording of this lecture here.
The situation in Afghanistan changes by the minute. In this blog post, we want to call attention to a largely overlooked issue: protection of Afghan refugees or other Afghans who have been registered biometrically by humanitarian or military agencies. Having collected biometrics from various parts of the Afghan population, for different purposes and with different technical approaches, recent events teach us a vital lesson: both the humanitarian and the military approach come with significant risks and unintended consequences.
Normally, humanitarian biometrics and military biometrics are considered separate spheres. Yet, as we show in this piece, looking at military and humanitarian biometric systems in parallel gives a strong indication that the use of biometrics in intervention contexts calls for reconsideration. Neither anonymized nor identifiable biometric data is a ‘solution’ but rather comes with distinct risks and challenges.
Afghanistan, UNHCR and biometrics: risks of wrongfully denying refugees assistance
As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated and employees of international humanitarian agencies wonder how much longer they will be able to work, contingency plans are drawn up: Will there be population movements, will there be camps for IDPs in Afghanistan or for refugees across borders? How will they be registered? How will they be housed? Contingency planning will help save lives.
Future planning must learn from experiences of the past. In the case of Afghanistan those are dire. More than forty years ago, on Christmas Eve in 1979, the Soviet Army invaded the country. Afghans began fleeing and sought refuge across nearby borders. Numbers swelled progressively. A decade later there were more than five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. The departure of Soviet troops was followed by continued civil war and the reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.
A US-led coalition of Western powers dislodged the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was the starting point for the international community to invest in the return of Afghan refugees to their home country. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was tasked with organizing the return and found itself facing several challenges, including limited financial and technical capacities, and problems linked to the sheer number of persons to be repatriated. While UNHCR started to develop and operate large-scale automated registration systems already in the 1990s, these were not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with several million people. At the time, nobody had such systems. Registration was eventually outsourced to Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Refugees were given Proof of Registration (PoR) cards issued by the Pakistani government. Another problem was the integrity of the voluntary return programme. Donors provided funds to UNHCR for the agency to disburse significant cash grants to Afghan refugees as incentives to return. But how could they ensure that nobody would come forward more than once to claim allowance? There was no precedent. UNHCR was charting new territory and testing new approaches.
A ‘solution’ was offered by an American tech company: Biometrics. A stand-alone system was set up. The iris patterns of every returning refugee above the age of 12 – later the age of 6 – was scanned and stored in a biometrics database. Intending to protect the privacy of these individuals, each refugee’s iris image was stored anonymously. The belief was that the novel biometric system would comply with data privacy standards if the iris images were stored anonymously. The system operates ‘one to many matches’, meaning that one iris image is matched against the numerous iris images stored in the database to search for a potential match. This means that a returning refugee would only receive a cash grant if their iris could not be found in UNHCR’s new biometric database. If the iris was found in the database, this was taken to mean that the person had already received a cash grant earlier and repatriation assistance was thus denied. Millions of Afghans received their allowances, and left images of their iris in UNHCR’s biometric database. Today, the total number of images in this database stands at well above four million.
Fifteen years after its introduction it was discovered that while this novel system was designed with good intentions of providing privacy protection to iris-registered returnees, it had unintentionally opened a Pandora’s box: automated decision-making without any possibility of recourse. If the biometric recognition system would produce a false positive match (i.e., mistakenly matching the iris scan of a new returnee with one already registered in UNHCR’s database) – which statistically is possible, even likely – there was no way this returnee could prove that the machine’s false match was in fact wrong. Since all scans are stored anonymously, a person cannot prove that the iris in UNHCR’s database belongs to someone else, even though that is a likely scenario for a system being tested on an unprecedented scale. Likewise, no UNHCR staff can overturn the decision of the machine. Thus, by default, the machine is always ‘right’. This logic risks turning the intended aim of privacy protection into a problem, namely denying assistance to returnees who rightfully claim repatriation cash grants from UNHCR.
This system has never been replicated elsewhere. UNHCR has modernized its global registration systems in recent years and continues to use iris scanning and other biometric identifiers. In its current system, each image is linked to a person and can be checked in case of doubt. Such system designs are, however, not unproblematic either.
US military and identifiable biometrics in the hands of the Taliban: risk of reprisals
As embassies in Afghanistan are being evacuated, not only are many vulnerable individuals left behind, but also biometric identification devices have been left. Indeed, not only UNHCR but also the US military has been collecting biometrics, though from very different parts of the Afghan population. This includes biometric data (i) from Afghans who have worked with coalition forces and (ii) from individuals encountered ‘in the field’. In both cases biometrics were for example used by the US military to check the identity of these individuals against biometrics stored in the US DoD’s Biometric-Enabled Watchlist containing biometrics from wanted terrorists, among others. As news have circulated about the Taliban getting their hands on biometric collection and identification devices left behind, and on the sensitive biometric data that these devices contain, an assessment of the situation, the risks, and the lessons is called for. What will the Taliban do with this data and with these devices? Will they for example use it to check whether an individual has collaborated with coalition forces?
If that is the case, it could have detrimental repercussions for anyone identified biometrically by the Taliban. The Taliban regime of course cannot check the iris scans and fingerprints of all individuals throughout Afghanistan. Yet, as we have seen in many other contexts, including humanitarian access, biometric checks could be introduced by the Taliban when Afghans for example cross a checkpoint moving from one region to another, or request access to hospitals or other government assistance. Would someone then decide not to go to hospital in fear of being identified by the Taliban as a friend of their coalition enemy? Or, as Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First noted, the biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan that the Taliban now likely have access to, could also be used “to create a new class structure – job applicants would have their bio-data compared to the database, and jobs could be denied on the basis of having connections to the former government or security forces.”
There are many worst case-scenarios to think through and to do our utmost to avoid, and there are many actors who should see this as a call to revise their approaches to the collection and storing of biometric data. Besides the two examples above, it can for example also be added that as part of its migration management projects worldwide, IOM has in recent years supported the Population Registration Department within the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) in the digitalization of paper-based ID cards (“Tazkiras”). The main objective of the project is the acceleration of the identity verification process and to establish an identity verification platform. Once operational, the platform can be accessed by external government entities dependent on identity verification for provision of services. Since 2018, more than two million Afghan citizens were issued a Tazkira smartcard which is linked to a biometric database. The IOM project also supports the Document Examination Laboratory under the Criminal Investigation Department of MoIA in upgrading their systems and knowledge base on document examination.
What should be done? Access denied or data deleted
While this blogpost cannot possibly allude to all the various cases that involve biometrics in Afghanistan, it seems that a diverse range of actors, that all have collected biometric data from Afghans over the past 20 years, need to undertake an urgent risk assessment, ideally in a collective and collaborative manner. On that basis a realistic mitigation plan should be developed. How can access for example be denied or data deleted?
We do not know what will happen next in Afghanistan. Should the situation develop in a way that will see a new wave of refugees into Pakistan, UNHCR’s stand-alone iris system loses its relevance because the new refugees could well be those four million who returned during the past 19 years, and whose biometric data UNHCR has already processed once before and keeps in its database. In such a scenario, the database would serve no purpose and preparations should be made to destroy it in line with the Right to be Forgotten. Indeed, there is consensus among many human and digital rights specialists that individuals have the right to have private information removed from Internet searches and other directories and databases under certain circumstances. The concept of the Right to be Forgotten has been put into practice in several jurisdictions, including the EU. Biometric data is considered a special category of particularly sensitive data whether it is stored anonymously or not. As opposed to ID cards and passports, a biometric identity cannot be erased: you will always carry your fingerprint and iris. In fact, the main legal basis for the processing of sensitive personal data is the explicit informed consent of the concerned individual.
Another lesson for future reference should be the understanding that neither anonymized nor unanonymized biometric data provide easy technological solutions. None of the above approaches can be replicated in future war or interventions without serious reconsideration, including questions about whether and why the data is needed and careful attention to whether it should be deleted? Hence, this is the moment for UNHCR, as the global protection agency, to review and showcase its learnings from this project. It is time to show respect for the digital rights of those who have certainly never consented that their biometric data be maintained in a database beyond the point of usefulness.
One advantage of seeing this humanitarian biometric system in parallel with US military use, and other uses of biometrics in Afghanistan, is that together these examples powerfully illustrate some of the many challenges confronting the at times stubborn belief in biometrics as a solution, making challenges visible from many different ’user’ perspectives. Anonymous data is not a solution (as per the UNHCR example), nor is unanonymized data (as per the US military example). What should we do then? What do both ‘failures’ mean for how to think about the use of biometrics in future interventions, humanitarian and military.
Having stored this data for almost two decades, and now concluding that this effort was potentially not just useless, but more seriously risked producing additional insecurity – e.g. to Afghans wrongfully denied humanitarian assistance – should signpost the need to reconsider the taken-for-granted assumption that the more biometrics are collected from refugees the better. This should be a starting point to review the risks of identification of data traceable to individuals and that of anonymous data. So far we have paid attention to refugee digital bodies and digital dead bodies – but what about abandoned digital bodies?
Katja Lindskov Jacobsen holds a PhD in International Relations from Lancaster University. She is a Senior Researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. Her research focuses on security and intervention.
Karl Steinacker is an expert on issues relating to forced migration, humanitarian aid and digital identity and trust. He has worked in the aid and development industry for more than 30 years, including four different UN agencies and the German Humanitarian Aid. As a manager and diplomat of the UNHCR, he was for several years in charge of registration, biometrics, and the digital identity of refugees. He currently works as Digital Advisor for the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC).
BeEx2021 is hosted by LawTransform, a collaboration between the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) and the University of Bergen (UiB) bringing together scholars, students and practitioners who share an interest in how law shapes societies, and the use of rights and courts as tools for social change.
This year Bergen Exchanges featured a roundtable discussion, hosted by the NCHS, on the unfortunately all too topical issue of sexual violence in humanitarian settings. In this roundtable, Kristin Sandvik, Elin Skaar and Liv Tønnessen take a critical look at how this issue is addressed by the international community. You can catch up and view a recording of the interesting discussion here.
The first part of the discussion explores the turn towards technology as a current trend in humanitarian aid. What should we think about the interface between technology and the fight against conflict-related sexual violence? What are the potential challenges that might emerge from the use of wearable digital technology for combating sexual violence?
The second part of the discussion looks at the role of truth commissions in addressing sexual violence post-conflict. How is this done, and to what effect?
A new project “Red Lines and Grey Zones: Exploring the Ethics of Humanitarian Negotiation” has received funding from the Research Council of Norway. The project is hosted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in association with the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS).
Humanitarian action relies on negotiations with counterparts at local, national and international levels. These negotiations are filled with ethical dilemmas like cooperating with war criminals and repressive regimes, striking deals that favour certain social groups and accepting agreements that put the lives of local staff at risk.
Led by Kristoffer Lidén, Senior Researcher at PRIO, the project will include consultations with humanitarian practitioners to map problems related to the ethics of negotiation. The project team will also include NCHS Co-Director, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO), as well as a range of other research partners.
The Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation – a collaboration between the ICRC, UNHCR, WFP, MSF and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue – will be actively involved in consultation and training activities. The project team will also develop online university courses at MA and PhD levels and professional trainings.
In the later half of 2015 and early 2016, over a million refugee-migrants made their way to European borders. Further, the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war in the backyard of Europe saw an increase in the numbers of people fleeing and displaced from 2011 onwards.
The national and EU reception infrastructure and EU asylum system were not prepared to receive such numbers of people seeking protection. In response, a large number of grassroots initiatives and volunteer movements were rapidly launched across Europe.
This recently published special issue of Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics explores these grassroots responses to mass migration in Europe. The special issue includes open access articles on provincialising everyday volunteer practices at European borders, grassroots responses to the pushbacks at the fringes of EU, as well as insights into border violence, asylum, and racism at the Moria camp in Greece.
Delivering education in situations of conflict and crisis is central to efforts to protect children and youth in the near-term and fostering peaceful coexistence over the longer-term. But how can education enable individuals and communities to build durable futures when there is great uncertainty about where these futures will be?
The animated story brings to life the narratives of refugee students and teachers in the Dadaab refugee camps of Kenya, and sheds light on the multitudes of challenges affecting refugee learning.
The story was created based on research by Hassan Aden, a doctoral researcher at PRIO and PhD student at Gothenburg University. The animation script was written by Hanna Ali, a British-Somali writer who is the artistic director of Kayd Somali Arts and Culture in London. Ali and Aden discuss their collaboration on an episode of PRIO’s Peace in a Pod podcast, which you can access here.
This is the latest in a series of collaborations between PositiveNegatives and PRIO researchers using animations and comics as tools for communicating key messages to diverse audiences. You can read more about the talented creative team behind this animation here.
In this associated PRIO policy brief, ‘Refugee Education: A Long-Term Investment‘, Horst and Aden present ‘lessons learned’ from the Dadaab refugee camps to argue that a substantial shift is needed that enables long-term investment in educating children in protracted refugee situations. You can access the the policy brief here.