Syrian Refugee Camps Now Use Eye Scanners to Pass Out Food

It may sound like something out of <i>Mission: Impossible,</i> but iris scanning technology is now helping humanitarian programs feed hungry refugees.

Feb 18 2016, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Nicolee Camacho

Food security is one of the greatest challenges for the nearly five million registered Syrian refugees and the countless more displaced by the ongoing civil war in Syria. As crops are destroyed by war, Syrians starve in besieged towns as they await food deliveries from aid organizations like the World Food Programme and Red Cross and Red Crescent.

For Syrians in refugee camps, securing food poses different challenges. As the crisis has worn on, the WFP has shifted from supplying daily hot meals to providing refugees with a type of pre-paid credit card that allows the refugees a greater degree of choice. But in the name of safety, reliability, and convenience, some refugees can now purchase their groceries with an eye scan.

The WFP is calling the Mission: Impossible-style payment plan that was recently put in place in Jordan's King Abdullah Park refugee camp a milestone. The technology, which accesses a database of iris scans that are taken when a refugee registers with the UN Refugee Agency, allows refugees to pick out groceries, line up for a scan, and quickly depart with a printed receipt.

READ MORE: What It's Like to Cook in a Syrian Refugee Camp

The system is preferable to the card system because cards can be stolen or lost and PIN numbers forgotten. An iris, like a fingerprint, is unique. The technology was already being used at a network of Jordanian ATMs that allow refugees to access UN aid money.

"We are really capitalizing on technology that already exists," the regional communications officer for the WFP, Dina El-Kassaby, told Mashable. "We are just giving this technology a retail spin."

The new payment system, which was developed in coordination with IrisGuard—the developer of the scan technology—and other Jordanian partners, is currently being used by about 1,000 refugees at King Abdullah Park. The WFP hopes to expand the program to all of Jordan's refugee camps in the coming months, and if the system is a success, to areas outside of the camps and to other countries. More than 650,000 refugees of Syrian and Iraqi origin currently reside in Jordan, with just 20 percent living in refugee camps.