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UN Uses Technology to Prevent Refugee Fraud in Afghanistan - 2003-08-17

The United Nations says a pioneering screening program at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has successfully cut down on the number of people trying to steal relief packages. The U.N. refugee agency says the program is already saving the United Nations millions of dollars.

Under the so-called iris recognition test, every Afghan refugee over the age of six has the iris of his or her eye scanned. UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler says the image is stored digitally in a computer, and the data is shared among three registration centers in Pakistan.

"This way, we can rapidly check in a matter of seconds whether or not a refugee who is presenting him or herself as someone intent on returning home has perhaps in the past previously presented himself and gotten the U.N. repatriation package of assistance items - food aid and travel expenses," explained Mr. Kessler.

Last year, nearly two million refugees returned to Afghanistan. All were screened under the old verification system, which the U.N. refugee agency says was more time consuming and less effective.

Mr. Kessler said some refugees would try to pass through the registration center several times in order to collect several assistance packages. He said the United Nations ended up losing millions of dollars from these fraudulent schemes. Mr. Kessler said the iris recognition test is non-intrusive and almost foolproof.

"The image is going into the computer without the individual's name, address, sex, eye color, destination or the refugee camp where they live," he said. "There is no information going into the computer that is being associated with the photograph of the iris. This way, the refugees have nothing to fear about any kind of data being collected about them. But yet, at the same time, we know that if someone tries to go through twice, that the computer will come up with a positive."

The U.N. refugee agency says a quarter-million Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan this year. Mr. Kessler said the iris scanning technology has identified about 600 of them as having gone back previously. Because of its success, he said, the system is likely to be used in other parts of the world.