Restricted Access to Refugee Statistics: Data Protection or Data Concealment?

By Nayla Rush on December 3, 2021

In a previous post, I gave a roundup of FY 2021 refugee resettlement admissions and noted the absence of specific data on resettled refugees, such as religion, gender, education, etc. This type of information used to be publicly available on the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) website, operated by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM); it no longer is.

Furthermore, the “interactive reporting” tool on that same platform that allowed access to different variables (day and month of admission, city and state of initial placement, religion and nationality of refugees resettled in a particular state on a particular day/month etc.) was rendered inactive at the beginning of FY 2021 before being removed altogether recently. The only data publicly available now is via monthly “Admissions and Arrivals” reports released by the U.S. government on the RPC site. These reports only cover monthly admissions, nationality, and placement states of resettled refugees.

The Biden’s administration official justification for this data restriction is the setup of a new IT system at RPC, but other concerns are also at play here, namely "data protection" and "right to privacy". Those themes are central to the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) mission, and could also be those of the current U.S. administration.

Matters were explained to me in more detail via email by a State Department spokesperson in May 2021:

On October 9, 2020, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) began migrating its Refugee Processing Center case processing system to a new IT system. This is part of a multi-year process to upgrade and modernize the system used to ensure the safety, security, and integrity of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 

This process is expected to be completed this month but there is no guarantee that access to previously accessible data will be restored. The Biden administration might be more concerned about “data protection” and “refugee privacy” than it is about transparency. Here’s the email from the spokesperson again:

Once new IT systems are fully deployed in December 2021, the Refugee Processing Center will provide additional reporting on the website. We have yet to determine which specific reports will be available, but we will take into account data protection and refugee privacy concerns. (Emphasis added.)

This focus on refugee privacy and data protection resemble that of Christine Adam, the Division Head of the Office of the Legal Counsel and Legal Affairs at IOM. Adam explained the importance of migrant (including refugee) data protection and right to privacy (a human right according to her) and encouraged every state to adhere by these principles under international law which oversees the implementation of national data protection laws. Below is part of my transcription of her video appearance (emphases are mine):

Given our activities and our mandate and the work we are doing we are holding a lot of personal information…And so we developed those data protection principles to precisely have this organizational framework. Of course, we need that in order to facilitate migration movements better and in order to better understand migration as such. Also, it helps us to build trust and hold us accountable and, therefore, build trust with our beneficiaries and with our partners. But we must not forget that at the bottom of it it’s a human right. So basically, the main reason why we are doing it is in order to preserve the well-being and the right to privacy and the dignity of our beneficiaries, the migrants.

The Global Compact for Migration at the same time also calls for upholding the human rights of privacy and data protection under international law. Protection of personal data preserves the right to privacy which is a human right.

Especially, in the case of migrants, data protection is an integral part of protecting their right to life, integrity and human dignity.

The states that haven’t done it yet might consider ratifying Convention 108 of the Council of Europe. That’s the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data. That’s a convention that has been recently modernized in order to take into account new developments in the area of data protection as well as new technologies. And it’s now open to signature and ratification also from states outside the Council of Europe.

It is very important to have strong, comprehensive, national data protection laws and very crucial in that is also that there are data protection authorities that are actually independent authorities to oversee the implementation of those national data protection laws.

The Convention 108 cited above “was the first legally binding international instrument in the data protection field.” It was opened for signature on January 28 of 1981 by the Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organization. The Convention was modernized in 2018 “to address the challenges for privacy resulting from the use of new information and communication technologies.”

55 countries ratified the Convention 108 including eight non-members of the Council of Europe. The United States is not on that list; but, it does hold observer status on the Council of Europe since 1995. Non-European states can be granted observer status, meaning they can send representatives to cooperate with the Council. Relations and contacts with observer states “cover almost the whole spectrum of the Council of Europe’s activities.”  

Here are some of the criteria for the granting of observer status with the Council of Europe:

[A]ny State may be granted observer status by the Committee of Ministers if it is willing to accept the principles of (i) democracy; (ii) the rule of law; and (iii) the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and (iv) if it is willing to co-operate with the Council of Europe.

While the United States is not a signatory of the Convention 108, it does hold an active role within the Council of Europe and its current administration does prioritize refugee data protection and privacy.

Likewise, the Biden administration has not (yet) endorsed the “Global Compact for Migration” (nor the “Global Compact for Refugees”) – an opt-out decision for which President Trump was vehemently criticized in 2018 – but does appear, at times, to privilege migrant (and refugee) rights at the expense of U.S. interests.

The protection of data and right to privacy for all (including refugees) should indeed be upheld. But, when it comes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, one wonders about the need for such measures. Are we dealing here with a case of data protection or one of data concealment?

Withholding general refugee information from the refugee data portal for “refugee privacy concerns” is unfounded. Publicly available information regarding resettled refugees does not include names, specific backgrounds, current or past addresses, etc., and could in no way be detrimental to refugees. While this type of “data protection” seems superfluous, access to detailed information for researchers and policymakers is essential. Statistical patterns are, indeed, needed to design appropriate policies and provide suitable help for refugees and their hosting communities alike.

Part of IOM’s agenda is to protect its “beneficiaries” (migrants and refugees) and work to “facilitate migration movements.” What’s on the Biden administration’s agenda?

Topics: Refugees