The effort is part of a larger transition among aid agencies attending to Syrian refugees, preparing for the realities of administering longer-term services to the refugee population within and outside the camps. Under current plans the UNHCR iris-ID system will not yet be linked to services deployed by the network of other aid organizations attending to this population. But, other transitions are taking place among other aid groups. For example, the U.N. World Food Programme is now shifting to distributing food vouchers at Za’atari, allowing refugees to buy the food of their choice from designated shops inside the camp, rather than rely solely on monthly rations of wheat, pasta, rice, lentils, sugar and salt.
Za’atari has swelled to become the second-largest refugee camp in the world, dwarfed only by Dadaab in Kenya. Another refugee camp for Syria’s refugees in Jordan is currently being readied east of the capital, and its inhabitants would eventually be integrated into the system. The head of UNHCR has said that the Syria crisis has suffering and displacement “unparalleled in recent history,” underscoring the magnitude of the economic, logistics and health obstacles for aid agencies. Providing basic supplies, sanitation and shelter to meet the urgent needs of the influx of refugees is reportedly a growing challenge.
Just a year ago the number of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration globally was about 231,000. But now an average of almost 5,000 Syrians join the exodus daily with more than 97 percent of Syria’s refugees living in immediate neighboring countries. Another 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced—forced to leave their homes but still living within the country’s borders.
UNHCR previously attempted a smaller-scale effort using iris-identification technology in Pakistan a decade ago, although that was geared toward avoiding duplicative registrations, rather than linking refugees with ongoing services. The current UNHCR program would be the first countrywide rollout. Linking iris technology with aid in all refugee settings, however, still poses significant challenges: Setting up such a system requires a functioning banking system, a functioning rule of law (to mitigate the inherent risks of asking refugees to provide their biometric data to a service provider), and good connectivity that allows iris images to be matched against an online database. The technology must also be culturally accepted—which is no small feat.