Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Tuesday for an investigation into the UN for improperly collecting data and sharing personal information from the Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh, which shared the information with Myanmar, their country of origin.
The UN is accused of failing to conduct a full data impact assessment, which is a requirement set by its policies. HRW also accused the agency of failing to obtain the refugees’ informed consent with regards to the sharing of their data with Myanmar. Consequently, HRW is calling for an investigation into the issue.
Since 2018, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been registered in Bangladeshi camps by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Bangladesh government undertook a joint registration exercise with the UNHCR to issue the refugees identity cards they use to access essential aid and services. According to HRW, the information collected, which included analog photographs, thumbprint images, and other biographic data, was then submitted to the Myanmar government with the Bangladesh government seeking possible repatriation.
Lama Fakih, the crisis and conflict director at HRW, stated that this sharing of information exposed the refugees to more risk. He further stated that UNHCR should only allow data that it collects to be shared with countries of origin when the information has been properly obtained. The participants must give free and informed consent. HRW argued that refugees did not understand that their data could be shared with Myanmar.
From September 2020 to March 2021, HRW says that it interviewed 24 refugees, 20 aid workers, analysts, local activists, journalists, and lawyers who observed or participated in the Rohingya registration. Its findings were then sent to the UNHCR in February and April. The UNHCR responded on May 10, denying any wrongdoing or policy violations. The Agency claimed that the aim of the data collecting was looking into a durable solution for the refugee problem as well as ensuring that no more Rohingya would suffer.
Currently, the UNHCR has pledged to protect the refugees’ right to return to Myanmar should they choose to.