Transforming Refugee Registration


The on-going Syrian refugee crisis is unprecedented both in its size and in the burden it has placed on the humanitarian system. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has struggled to respond to this massive degree of displacement. The UNHCR registration system cannot keep up with the number of migrants, causing lags in the process and leaving thousands of refugees stuck in a sort of “registration limbo,” unable to receive the help they need. Introduction of a digital solution into this system could revolutionize refugee registration, making it faster and more efficient, and thus giving more people of concern access to UNHCR services.


Before a refugee can receive any form of humanitarian assistance from the UNCHR, he/she must be registered, in order to document his/her needs, to identify the protection that he/she may require, and to provide him/her with proper identification documents. As one UNHCR worker put it, “Registration means help.” It is the first step on the way to getting aid.


The UNHCR registration process is split into two phases, both of which occur once the migrant in question has arrived at his/her destination. In the first phase, either the refugee or a UNHCR representative will fill out a registration form to gather basic information, such as name, age, family size, etc. The second phase requires that each migrant be photographed and interviewed. Both family interviews and individual interviews must be conducted. UNHCR representatives collect more in-depth information during these conversations, including details of the migrant’s personal, educational and professional background. The data collected during both stages must then be verified and approved, either by the UNHCR or by the government.


The sheer number of refugees fleeing Syria for host countries in the Middle East and Europe in recent years has presented the UNHCR with an overwhelming challenge. Despite attempts to conquer this problem, from adding registration centers to adopting biometric identifiers such as retina scans, the UNHCR cannot keep pace with the waves of new applicants. One UNHCR worker estimated that at a given time, about one- hundred- to- two- hundred thousand Syrian refugees may be waiting for completed registration.


European software company SAP is working on a project to expedite this process. This app would allow migrants with smart phones (a surprisingly large percentage) to complete initial registration forms prior to their arrival. The app focuses exclusively on Germany, one of the most common destinations within Europe. While this has the potential to prove incredibly useful to migrants heading to Germany, the app’s geographical limitation makes it irrelevant to most Syrian refugees. However, if this idea were expanded to encompass a variety of host countries, it could be truly groundbreaking. Someone, whether it be SAP, another company, an NGO, or even the UNHCR itself, could produce a similar that app would allow migrants to choose from a list of destinations. Their forms could then be routed to the appropriate offices. They could even receive useful tips to better prepare them on arrival, such as the location of UNHCR registration centers in the host country. Each migrant would then arrive at his/her destination ready to embark upon the second phase of the registration process.


A digital solution that would allow refugees to begin application for UNHCR registration while on the road would alleviate much of the stress on the system. Of course not all migrants have access to smart phones, phone chargers, or Internet, but enough do to make this a worthwhile enterprise. Registrations could be processed much more quickly, leaving fewer migrants around the world stuck in “registration limbo.” Refugees could receive much- needed aid sooner, giving them a better chance of survival and of success in their new home.

Urban Refuge