A Biometric Database of Syrian Refugees' Eyes May Help Them Enter the U.S.

U.N. databases filled with iris scans and DNA tests could streamline the background checks for thousands.


The Obama administration’s intentions to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year was met with the political whinging that’s been a hallmark of the last eight years. Some reactions were worse than others. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, the U.S. is poised to finally start adopting some long-used United Nations tools to help keep tabs on the thousands fleeing from Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

For the length of the Syrian civil war the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has been using portable eye-scanning machines and mobile DNA systems to register those escaping the country. Even with a relatively small staff, iris-scanning is so convenient it has allowed Jordan to accept and process migrants without a backlog waiting to be registered, and has even streamlined getting $120 million in aid to nearly 2 million refugees across the Middle East. Yet the U.S. has yet to use any of this available biometric data. Until, it seems, now.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, in partnership with the UN, is planning a pilot initiative to finally get the Department of Homeland Security to start using iris scans to complete background checks on those thousands looking to enter America. The screening process for refugees is still long and complex — in some cases taking years — but new “rapid DNA” desktop-size labs could process cheek swabs from children and adults in less than an hour, speeding up at least one step on the journey. That should be comfort for the House members who voted to pause entry of Syrian refugees.

The UN database catalogue has the irises of roughly 1.64 million people, mostly Syrian, according to Defense One. These are usually only the eyes of adults and children 7 and up because of the way the iris patterns change with age.

“We are constantly looking for ways to make the process as efficient as possible without cutting corners on security,” DHS spokesman Daniel Cosgrove told Defense One. The added vetting process of the database should help at least cut down on some redundancies in the system as it eliminates the need for agencies to keep resubmitting interagency background checks. The expediency can mean only good things when the need is so great and the timescale so urgent.

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