Digital Identity in the Migration & Refugee Context

Italy Case Study

“Increasingly, governments, corporations, international organizations, non governmental organizations (NGOs), governmental authorities are trying to use digital technologies to trace the identities of migrants and refugees. This growing interest in digital identity technologies would seem to satisfy a pressing need: the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that in the modern world, the lack of an identity “document” can limit a person’s access to services and socio-economic participation, including employment opportunities, housing, a mobile phone and a bank account.”

The report Digital Identity in the Migration & Refugee Context, carried out by a research team composed of Mark Latonero, Keith Hiatt, Antonella Napolitano, Giulia Clericetti and Melanie Penagos, which developed its research in Italy supported by the local partner of Data & Society, the Italian Coalition for Freedoms and Civil Rights (CILD) – funded by Open Society Foundations – came to the opposite conclusion.

“This report argues that the technologies and processes involved in digital identity will not provide easy solutions in the current migration and asylum context”, the document explains.
“Identity-based technologies introduce a new sociotechnical layer that can exacerbate existing prejudices, discrimination or power imbalances. How can we assess the added value of digital identification systems in relation to potential risks and harm to migrant security and fundamental human rights?”, the researchers wondered.

The researchers of the project’s research team conducted qualitative interviews in Italy in June and July 2018, meeting civil society organizations working with migrants and refugees.
The purpose of the field visits was to provide geographically specific observations and recommendations for legislators, international organisations, the European Commission, some of which may even be applicable to wider contexts in Europe.

What emerges from the research is that:

  • Migrants “barter” identification data for resources without any full awareness and free consent. Privacy, informed consent and data protection are compromised throughout the identification process.
  • Systemic bureaucratic prejudices present obstacles that are likely to prevent the fair development and integration of digital identity systems.
  • There is a lack of trust in sociotechnical systems that intertwine with identity. Cultural mediators can be uniquely positioned in the system to build up the trust and literacy around privacy rights and informed consent. In addition, whether NGOs collecting identity data develop skills and cultural resources, they can become access points ready to strengthen data protection for beneficiaries, such as migrants and refugees.
  • Urgent open questions remain to be explored before the new systems of identity will be made official.

The Committee of the Regions believes that it is important to ensure that digital technologies are imposed in the current context of migration. Without an evidence base and appropriate safeguards, the new digital identity systems could amplify the risks and damage the lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations in Italy and elsewhere.

In addition, according to the researchers who worked on the report, in the current political climate in Italy and other European Union (EU) countries, the addition of new digital identity systems that promote the effective implementation of the existing policy is not an adequate response.


by Christian Elia