Exists, exists not.. Data and belonging

In 2018, a Windrush scandal broke out in the United Kingdom after The Guardian published a story about a man who had been refused cancer treatment because he was believed to be an illegal immigrant. The Home Office said there was no record of his arrival to the country, although he had lived there for 44 years. There were number of others who had lived in the country for decades, but were losing jobs and being detained because they were unable to provide evidence of their residency. They had all come to the UK legally after WWII to address the shortage of workers.

However, their landing records had been destroyed, and therefore the Home Office was making decisions using “incorrect data from systems that are not fit for purpose”. The government has been criticised over the failure to keep accurate records, as well as their inaction to help people. Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian journalist who broke the Windrush story, has asked “how will the same department register the 3.5 million European Union nationals who will need formal confirmation of their status in the United Kingdom after Brexit?” By August 2019, about 1 million European Union nationals resident in the United Kingdom have applied for settled status, while there have been concerns over complications with the application process.

It is yet to see how successful the United Kingdom will be in securing the rights if the EU citizens when Brexit comes into an effect. However, millions of others worldwide face stripping off their citizenship because of issues with registration, or countries simply refusing to recognise them, forcing people to live without the right to work, vote, or receive aid. In India the Bengali Muslims are challenged by the country’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) to prove their heritage. The communities are scrambling to confirm their identity, or provide documentation that show their ties to the place, spanning for more than hundred years.

People being able to prove who they are or their status in the country they are staying is increasingly an issue. According to UNHCR, over 20 million people have been forced to cross borders to escape war, persecution or violence, and this number is growing. In May 2019, the UNHCR launched the first Global Virtual Summit on Digital Identity for Refugees. A goal was to come up with recommendations on digital identity that will give refugees an access and better opportunities, with focus being in refugee registration and the inclusion of refugees in States’ systems. For example the GSMA has program dedicated to enabling proof of identification for people affected by humanitarian crises. Programs like these make it easier to enroll people in the national register and gives refugees, displaced people and people in crisis a legal proof of identification.

The challenges of being able to prove one’s identity and status are universal, and the new technologies are being used to find solutions to decrease the number of undocumented people and make sure no information is lost. However, as some of the examples show, it is also a question of how this information is processed and secured so it cannot be used as a power tool against minorities.

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