Hamdi was just an infant when his relatives first brought him to the Dadaab refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya to be registered as a refugee – despite the fact he was a Kenyan citizen. Like many ethnic Somali citizens of Kenya living in the vicinity of the camp, they were drawn to the prospect of obtaining food aid for their family.
Since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in the early 1990s, north-eastern Kenya has experienced periodic droughts, propelling many Kenyan Somalis to slip into the refugee system. At Dadaab, they could access free education, food and medical services that, as citizens of one of the country’s most neglected and marginalised regions, were often out of their reach.
Hamdi’s relatives did not anticipate that a seemingly harmless lie would hound him for almost half a decade. Over the last few years, tens of thousands of Kenyan citizens like Hamdi who have tried to obtain a Kenyan national ID have been turned away because their fingerprints are captured in the refugee database.
I met many of these people last December while conducting research in the town of Garissa in the eastern part of the country. This was part of an ongoing project into the troubled history of biometrics and identification in Kenya. I then returned to London to news of a newly published inquiry into the Windrush scandal. It detailed how hundreds of British Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, deported and mistreated under the government’s harsh, data-driven immigration rules.
I was struck by the similarities between the UK and Kenya (two countries bound together by colonial history). The Windrush scandal, which came to public light in 2017, has attracted comparatively more attention than the plight faced by victims of double registration in Kenya. However, both cases reveal the harms caused by data-driven technologies in the service of anti-immigrant and exclusionary policies.
Migrant surveillance systems affect citizens and residents, particularly those who do not fit neatly into legal categories or typical ideas of who “belongs”. Civil rights activists have been raising alarms for years about the impacts of data-driven and biometric surveillance on irregular migrants.