Digital Biopolitics, Humanitarianism and the Datafication of Refugees

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Refugees and their bodies are increasingly becoming a contested site of struggle, control and resistance. With the recent refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their war-torn countries to seek shelter in Europe and elsewhere, various measures are being adopted by governments across European borders and beyond so as to manage the flow of forced migrants and administer support to asylum seekers. Such measures include the use of tracking apps, biometric technologies and smart ID cards. What these measures have in common is their reliance on two elements: data and the body. Everyday, thousands of people crossing borders have their fingerprints, eye scans, photographs, names, and nationality recorded and verified on various databases. Border officials, governments and security contractors use these data to monitor and track individuals crossing borders, while refugee agencies and aid workers can use the data to provide vital services to refugees. The ‘datafication of the body’ is therefore emerging as a major trend in both the security and the humanitarian responses to the current refugee situation.

In this chapter, I consider some recent examples of the data-driven techniques deployed by both governments and aid agencies to manage the mobility of refugees and securitise borders. These include the European Border Surveillance System, EUROSUR, and a series of European-wide databases such as the Schengen Information System, as well as the United Nations’ refugee registration system, ProGres Database, and the recently launched project, ID2020, supported by the United Nations. I approach these examples through the lens of ‘digital biopolitics’ (Colman 2016), a concept describing the increasing convergence of body and digital technology within governmental practices and their life management strategies. By critically reflecting on the digital ontology of the refugee body, this chapter also raises some ethical questions vis-à-vis issues of power and agency, and the interplay between care and control that underlines contemporary humanitarian approaches to the refugee crisis. One important question is to do with the issue of identification and how the identity of the refugee is increasingly becoming at once the target of surveillance and control as well as the basis of arguments for the refugee’s rights. By juxtaposing analyses of governmental and humanitarian technologies of identification, the chapter reveals how in both contexts, refugees are often reduced to an object of digital biopolitics through the various biometric identification processes imposed upon them. I begin the discussion with a brief explanation of what digital biopolitics entails.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRefugee Studies: Contemporary Research Across the Humanities
PublisherEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
ChapterPart 7, Chapter 3
ISBN (Electronic)9781474443227, 9781474443210
ISBN (Print)9781474443197
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


  • Humanitarian crisis
  • ID2020
  • Eurosur
  • Eurodac
  • Biopolitics
  • Digital Culture
  • Biometrics


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