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PAKISTAN: Afghan returnee children to undergo iris verification

ISLAMABAD , 11 August 2003 (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has made it compulsory for all Afghan refugees aged six and above to undergo iris scanning verification as part of the repatriation process, according to a UNHCR official.

"It is in the interest of the children," Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s senior repatriation officer told IRIN in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Monday. "UNHCR decided to lower the age limit due to instances of adults trying to abuse the system by taking back more children under the age of 12; they were being used for multiple repatriations to fraudulently claim family repatriation assistance packages," Ratwatte said.

Every potential Afghan returnee aged six and above must have his iris photographed and matched against the database to ascertain that he is a first-time returnee.

"UNHCR started the iris verification procedure last year with a three-month pilot project in Takhta Baig, located in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar," said Ratwatte. The procedure was first implemented in March 2003 and was applicable to all Afghan refugee returnees aged 12 and above.

Using state-of-the-art technology, the procedure is non-intrusive. Potential returnees are asked to look through a small hole while a camera captures a close-up of their iris. The photograph is saved as an image and not as a name, so as to simplify the process and protect the privacy of returnees.

"UNHCR had considered making the verification process applicable to children under the age of six, but after careful consideration decided on limiting the age to six years old and above," said Rattwatte.

Agency officials said lowering the age limit had not had a negative effect on the repatriation drive, and the iris scanning system had proved to be a deterrent to those seeking to abuse the system.

This year, 600,000 Afghans have been repatriated - 350,000 from Iran and 250,000 from Pakistan. Some 120,000 Afghans have been verified at the three iris centres of Peshawar, Quetta and Chaman in southwestern Pakistan. Since the start of the verification process, only 600 Afghans have been caught trying to evade the system.

Themes: (IRIN) Health & Nutrition

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