More people in Africa cannot prove their identity than anywhere else in the world. EU funding is changing that to fight illegal migration — but data protection is a worry
The first person you meet after you land at Blaise Diagne Airport in Dakar is a border guard with a digital scanner.
The official will scan your travel document and photograph and take a digital print of your index fingers.
It’s the most visible sign of the new state-of-the-art digital biometrics system that is being deployed in the airport with the help of EU funding.
The aim is to combat the increasingly sophisticated fake passports sold by traffickers to refugees.
But it also helps Senegal’s government learn more about its own citizens.
And it’s not just here: countries across West Africa are adopting travel documentation that has long been familiar to Europeans.
Passports, ID cards and visas are all becoming biometric, and a national enrolment scheme is underway.
In Europe too, there are proposals to create a biometric database of over 400 million foreign nationals, including fingerprints and photographs of their faces.
The new systems are part of efforts to battle illegal migration from West Africa to the EU.
‘Fool-proof’ EU passport online
Many are still plying the dangerous route across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to reach Europe, but a growing number are turning to the criminal gangs selling forged passports to avoid the treacherous journey over desert and sea.
There’s a burgeoning market in travel documents advertised as ‘fake but real”.
Prices vary according to the paperwork: an EU Schengen transit visa costs €5,000, while a longer-stay visa can be twice as high.
Some forgers have even mastered the ability to incorporate holograms and hack the biometric chips.
“Morphing” is an image processing technique that merges two people’s photographs into a single new face that appears to contain entirely new biometric data.
Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency, says 7,000 people were caught trying to enter the Schengen area in 2019 carrying such documents — but it admits the true figure could be much higher.
Sending migrants back
Last year, the largest number of travellers with fake documents arrived via Turkish and Moroccan international airports.
Many were caught in Italy, having arrived via Casablanca from sub-Saharan countries like Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.
A Frontex team responsible for deporting migrants without the correct paperwork was deployed this year at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.
It’s the first sign of a new European Commission regulation expanding the agency’s role, which includes access to biometric data held by member states, according to Jane Kilpatrick, a researcher at the civil liberties think-tank Statewatch.
“The agency’s growing role in the collection of data, it links overtly to the agency’s role in deporting individuals from the EU,” she said.
Over 490,000 return decisions were issued by member states last year, but only a third were actually sent back to a country outside the EU.
There are multiple reasons why: some countries, for example, refuse to accept responsibility for people whose identity documents were lost, destroyed or stolen.
Legally binding readmission agreements are now in place between the EU and 18 other countries to make that process easier.
There are no records
But a bigger problem is the fact that many African countries know very little about their own citizens.
The World Bank estimates the continent is home to roughly half of the estimated one billion people on the planet who are unable to prove their identities.
An absence of digitisation means that dusty registers are piling up in storage rooms.
The same goes for many borders: unlike the scene at Dakar’s airport, many are still without internet access, servers, scanners and cameras.
That, the Commission says, is why EU aid funds are being used to develop biometric identity systems in West African countries.
The EU Trust Fund for Africa has allotted €60 million to support governments in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire in modernising their registry systems and creating a national biometric identity database.
Much of the funding comes through Civipol, a consulting firm attached to France's interior ministry and part-owned by Milipol, one of the most important arms trade fairs in the world.
It describes the objective of the programme in Côte d’Ivoire as identifying “people genuinely of Ivorian nationality and organising their return more easily”.
Data security concerns
European sources told Euronews that the EU-funded projects in West Africa were not designed to identify potential migrants or deport existing ones.
A Commission spokesperson insisted no European entity — neither Frontex, nor member states, nor their partners — had access to the databases set up by West African countries.
But the systems they are funding are intimately connected to anti-migration initiatives.
One is the Migrant Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS), a migration database that can send automatic queries to Interpol watchlists to detect travel documents and people possibly linked to organised crime, including human trafficking.
Connections like these, and the role of French arms giants like Thales in the growing biometric market, has led data protection experts to become worried about possible abuses of privacy.
World’s newest biometric market
As Africa becomes the coveted market for biometric identification providers, the watchdog Privacy International has warned it risks becoming a mere testing ground for technologies later deployed elsewhere.
So far 24 countries on the continent out of 53 have adopted laws and regulations to protect personal data.
A letter by Privacy International, seen by Euronews, says EU must “ensure they are protecting rights before proceeding with allocating resources and technologies which, in absence of proper oversight, will likely result in fundamental rights abuses.”
It has published internal documents tracking the development of Senegal’s system that suggest no privacy or data protection impact assessments have been carried out.
Civipol, the French partner, denies this: it told Euronews that the Senegalese Personal Data Commission took part in the programme and Senegalese law was respected at every stage.
Yet members of Senegal’s independent Commission of Personal Data (CDP), which is responsible for ensuring personal data is processed correctly, admit implementation and enforcement remained a challenge — even though they are proud of their country’s pioneering role in data governance in Africa.
For the Senegalese cyber activist Cheick Fall, the charge is more serious: “Senegal has sinned by entrusting the processing of these data to foreign companies.”