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Geopolitics

Fingerprinting The Victims To Fight Humanitarian Aid Fraud

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new biometric system aims to prevent locals from pilfering supplies meant for victims of civil conflict. The aid often ends up at local markets.

In this file photo in Goma, internally displaced Congolese line up for aid
In this file photo in Goma, internally displaced Congolese line up for aid
Mustapha Mulonda

GOMA — People are lining up at a shed a few miles north of this regional Congolese capital for one purpose: to get their fingerprints registered.

As many here have fled from the ongoing fights in their hometowns, biometric registration centers for displaced people like this one were started in June in all camps around the city of Goma, and in the neighboring Masisi territory, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What prompted the initiative? Authorities had discovered multiple cases of fraud.

According to Muthethe Mundenga, the regional minister for health and social affairs, the registration is first aimed at collecting accurate data on the identities and the numbers of displaced in the area. But they are also a way to crack down on the Matshiri, fake refugees who live near the camps and take advantage of the distribution of food and other donations from relief organizations.

The registration is a two-step process. First, the "fixing," which consists in identifying those who sleep in the camp. In the middle of the night, a group made of humanitarian agents and a security officials from MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) enter the camps to count the displaced.

Their orders are communicated by an International Organization for Migration official who also heads the biometric department. "The real refugee is the one who sleeps in the camp," says the official. "Before the sun rises, we must place bracelets on all of them, so we don’t confuse them with false refugees when we register them." Later, the agents take the fingerprints only of those carrying a bracelet on their left wrist.

Fear is written across faces of the refugees in the biometric registering room, but fraudsters have more reasons to be afraid. "This time we’re trapped," says a local leader who had six "ghost huts' in a camp in Masisi, which enabled him to show up at multiple distribution center, and for each hut, 25 kilograms of cornflour, 10 liters of vegetable oil, sauce pans, plates, and more, which he then sold at a local market.

The Matshiri justify their presence in the camps by their poverty. A woman struggles, like most of the other fake displaced people, to accept not being on the list anymore. "I had fled the war in Masisi, but I don’t know this village very well," she says, trying to explain to the biometric team asking her why she lives on the outskirts of the camp.

Fake refugees who take advantage of these donations often live much better than other local poor people. Still, even the fraudsters have been affected by armed conflicts. "My wife and children were wounded by a bomb during fights between the Congolese armed forces and the M23 rebels last November," Jérôme Muhindo explains to the officials deciding whether to evict him from the camp. "Thank God, they’re all alive but unfortunately all our possessions were damaged."

John Kanane of the National Commission for Refugees, says that "except for water and some medication, we can’t give anything" to anyone living outside the boundary of the camp.

The bonafide refugees are delighted by the crackdown. "We hadn’t received any food for six months," says Jeanne Witsire, 73, smiling as she is given the rations allocated for the most vulnerable, as she has been identified thanks to the biometric system.

Until now, those who distributed aid were always faced with large crowds, only to be disheartened later when they found these same supplies on the local markets in Goma. Crossing off the list all the names of fake displaced has drastically reduced the number of beneficiaries. In Shasha for example, where 1,500 people used to have their names on the National Commission for Refugees’s list, only 560 refugees were finally registered after the controls.

According to the director for the Goma branch of the International Organization for Migration, Monique Van Hoof, the biometric system will also help finding those who have returned to their home villages, should the NGOs later distribute seeds or offer social rehabilitation programs.

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