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Updated Apr 14, 2020

Thousands of Kenyan citizens of Somali descent are caught in a bureaucratic limbo due to the use of a biometric refugee database, influenced by the aftermath of Somalia’s descent into civil war in the early 1990s and a coinciding drought in Kenya’s northeast. Kenyan citizens of Somali descent living there at the time falsely claimed to be refugees fleeing the Somali Civil War in order to access food aid. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees operating there during this time did not have the ability to distinguish between refugees and Kenyan citizens of Somali descent, due in part to the porous border between Kenya and Somalia, and family ties stretching across national boundaries.

Now, these Kenyans whose details appear on the refugee database are unable to get a Kenyan identity document, which is essential for registering a cellphone SIM card, opening a bank account, attending university, and getting a job. The dilemma reveals the unintended consequences of adopting centralized, integrated biometric databases, which the United Nations and other international aid bodies often share with a country’s authorities to limit fraud. The information is increasingly used not only for aid distribution purposes but also for election management and financial services. Ethnic Somalis face widespread discrimination in Kenya, so the collection of their biometric data may not have been in their best interest.

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