As we approach a year since the global outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter that followed the death of George Floyd in the United States, it bears remembering the form that racism takes in the modern world. It is a racism that is not only a matter of individual prejudice, but of systems of power designed—intentionally or otherwise—to exploit, suppress and dehumanize.
It is a racism that is not an abstract, but a tangible, material reality for large parts of humanity. And it is a racism that permeates human creation, from borders to cities to algorithms.
To many, the advent of sophisticated data science methods like artificial intelligence (AI) seems to hold the promise of removing the harmful racial biases that humans bring to decision-making and analysis. If race is a social construct, shouldn’t a computer be able to see past prejudice and make fair decisions?
The assumption that technology will naturally reduce discrimination and identify inequalities that humans would otherwise miss is a common one, but it poses dangerous consequences for those working with data science tools.
Without conscious intervention, it should be assumed that bias—racial or otherwise—has been introduced in the development process by humans subject to their own social and individual constructs. As such, combatting racial discrimination in emerging humanitarian technologies requires planning, proactive identification and active monitoring.
For IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), data science tools used responsibly hold the promise of improving aid delivery. These tools are useful in reducing the burden of repetitive, labour-intensive decisions with low levels of risk. If well planned to reduce human biases, advanced data science can expand the capacity of humanitarian organizations in ways that align with or even heighten the principles of neutrality and universality.
Some of these tools are already established in the humanitarian sector. AI systems can be used to predict drought and food insecurity, for example, or reunite separated families using facial recognition tools. These technologies can also help combat discrimination by identifying unequal outcomes that human analysts cannot see.
Yet the data science methods that form the foundation of technological humanitarian advances may still be limited in the way they input bias into projects. In recent years, AI systems have been developed in unregulated contexts and used in experimental cases. The possibilities of technological solutions are explored and sometimes even exploited in advance of regulatory legal frameworks, impacting decisions as serious as the determination of refugee status in national immigration systems.
These issues are disquieting not only for national or local authorities, but for also for humanitarians who do not consider in advance the possibly biased effects—individual and social—of the profound decisions they make. The vulnerability of people experiencing humanitarian crisis leaves them uniquely unable to evaluate and appeal decisions that affect them.
AI tools, for example, are often trained on data that is non-representative—both of use-case populations and of humanitarian contexts—leading to unexpected limitations. For example, mis-identification of non-white faces has been reported in many AI facial recognition software. Perhaps more fundamentally, the information that any data science tool uses in its development reflects conditions in a world full of prejudice and the real material inequalities that prejudice has created. If not used carefully, data science can reinforce biases and, what’s worse, wrongfully suggest that biases are natural.
AI poses some of the most pressing challenges in identifying and eliminating bias. Where traditional algorithms reflect human-created rules, AI relies on the ability of computers to recognize patterns and create their own expansive and ever-changing sets of rules. After studying a training data set, an AI may find millions of factors that minutely improve its analytical power.
As a result, AI systems may suffer from the so-called “black-box” problem, wherein the inputs and processes of the system are opaque to human observers. A person affected by the output of such a system may be entirely unable to appeal because it is impossible—even to the developer—to identify the process that led to it. So, while the effect of racialized action might be the same, it becomes far more difficult to identify the bias.
Simply eliminating data on race from data sets is no guarantee that the outcome of data processing won’t be biased, and, in some cases, might make identification of bias more difficult. An AI will in most cases be able to reach similar conclusions using proxies for race, such as address, religion or other culturally determined identifying factors. As such, eliminating data on race can simply obscure bias without reducing it at all, making it more likely to pass undetected.
Using race data is bad and not using race data is bad—the paradox explains why no simple technical guidance can suffice to eliminate racial discrimination from technology. Race and other discriminatory factors should not be relevant in society, but racism and its cumulative consequences are real. Addressing racism through unbiased technological improvement is not possible without actively considering and working to redress the reality of racism more broadly.
Fortunately, as data science tools are developed and adopted by humanitarian actors, useful protection frameworks have begun to emerge, including Harvard’s Signal Code, the IASC Operational Guidance on Data Responsibility in Humanitarian Action, and UNDP and Global Pulse’s Guide to Data Innovation for Development.
For bold, new data science projects to work, they must be guided by a robust process for assessing and minimizing biases. Because bias can be introduced into data science projects in innumerable ways, the Humanitarian Data Science and Ethics Group (DSEG) — of which DTM is a coordinator — has concluded that a static guidance cannot sufficiently address all forms of bias.
Rather, a dynamic, interactive process for assessing all the ways that bias could be introduced allows project designers at DTM and throughout the humanitarian sector to ensure that they have considered and made their best conscious efforts to eliminate bias.
This process is codified in DSEG’s Framework for the Ethical Use of Advanced Data Science in the Humanitarian Sector and the resulting Decision Tree, which challenge project designers to consider whether they have identified potentially discriminatory issues, such as historical bias in data collection, lack of representation in training data, and the diversity of the project’s team. Both formalize the process—rather than the outcome—of bias checks, so the system is appropriate for new and emerging tools. They rely on an entire project team’s knowledge of their project, the context in which it will be conducted, and the technology it will use to ensure that the guidance is always relevant.
Applying these frameworks to the development of data science projects can help practitioners decide on an appropriate accountability framework, test their model for bias, or even decide that, in certain cases, a process cannot be safely automated.
Racial discrimination and bias do not result from data science; but insofar as data science tools reflect the socio-economic and political realities in which they were created, they can formalize, obscure and deepen discrimination. So, it is the responsibility of all humanitarian data science users to ensure that they have proactively identified and mitigated all biases that may impact their work.
It is a universal responsibility—of data scientists, decision makers and everyone else—to eliminate the hate and exploitation that creates conditions of bias, inequality and discrimination to begin with.
This article was written by Jack Bahn, a consultant with DTM London. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of IOM.
Quarantine-free travel to resume on 19 July for fully vaccinated passengers returning from amber list countries
The government has today (8 July 2021) set out the details to enable people who have been fully vaccinated with an NHS administered vaccine, plus 14 days, to travel to amber list countries without having to quarantine on their return to England, from Monday 19 July. The recommendation for people not to travel to amber list countries will also be removed from 19 July.
The changes will come into force from Monday 19 July at 4am. Those who have been fully vaccinated with an NHS administered vaccine in the UK and are returning from amber countries will still be required to complete a pre-departure test before arrival into England, alongside a PCR test on or before day 2 after arrival. They will not have to take a day 8 test or self-isolate. Any positive results will be genomically sequenced to continue to manage the risk from importing variants.
Children under the age of 18 will not have to isolate when returning to England. While the recommendation that people should not travel to amber countries is being removed, children aged 4 and under will continue to be exempt from any travel testing. Children aged 5 to 10 will only need to do a day 2 PCR and 11 to 18 year olds will need to take both a pre-departure test and a day 2 PCR – as is the case for arrivals from green list countries.
The success of our vaccine programme has been aided by those selflessly taking part in clinical trials and those who are part of approved COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials in the UK will therefore be treated as vaccinated.
At this stage, there will be no changes to requirements for those returning from green or red list countries – even when they are fully vaccinated, nor for unvaccinated passengers travelling from amber countries who do not have a valid exemption.
Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps said:
Thanks to our successful vaccine rollout, we’re now able to widen quarantine-free travel to NHS administered fully vaccinated adults and children under the age of 18, and take another step towards fully reopening international travel.
As we continue with the domestic unlocking, it’s only right we get people travelling again – whether that’s for business to help create jobs, overdue holidays or reconnecting family and friends. However, protecting public health still remains our priority and we will act swiftly if action is needed.
Health Secretary, Sajid Javid said:
Vaccinations have severely weakened the link between COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths, building a wall of protection across the country.
As we learn to live with this virus, due to the tremendous progress of the vaccine programme – with more than 3 in 5 people now double jabbed – we can safely take steps to ease restrictions on travel, as we are doing at home. Allowing quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated people means they can be reunited with loved ones overseas and we can return to normality as quickly as possible.
The government is taking a phased approach to amending requirements and is already exploring plans to remove quarantine for vaccinated non-UK residents arriving from amber countries later this summer where it is safe to do so. The Test to Release scheme scheme remains an option for non-fully vaccinated travellers returning from amber countries to shorten their quarantine period, by paying for a private test and being released early if they receive a negative COVID-19 test result.
Travel continues to be different from usual, and while some restrictions remain in place passengers should expect their experience to be different and may face longer wait times than they are used to – although the government is making every effort to speed up queues safely. We will continue to rollout e-gates over the summer, with many already in operation across airports and more to be added over the coming months.
Carriers will have a critical role in carrying out primary checks on all passengers before boarding, checking people have the right COVID-19 certification documents to ensure we can continue to safeguard against new variants. Anyone not complying with health measures could face a fine, and carriers will be required to ensure proper checks are carried out.
Airlines UK CEO Tim Alderslade said:
This is a positive move towards the genuine reopening the sector has been looking for. Opening up the market for the rest of the summer, this announcement will provide far greater opportunities to travel, do business and see family and friends, and enable many more of our customers to book with certainty. The summer season essentially starts here.
Airlines look forward to working with government to continue this momentum and further open up the market.
All passengers will still need to complete their passenger locator form, which will include the requirement to declare vaccination status and provide proof of their pre-departure test. Amber arrivals will be required to prove their full vaccination status to carriers before departing, either via the NHS app or via an NHS COVID Pass letter which can be obtained by calling 119 for travelling overseas (which could take 5 days to arrive by post).
Airport Operators Association Chief Executive Karen Dee said:
This is a significant step forward that will be a boost to airports and the local economies that rely on them. Many airports staff will be able to get back to what they do best: supporting businesses to reach customers abroad, enabling people to visit friends and relatives and help people take a well-deserved holiday abroad after a difficult period.
If travelling abroad, you need to take steps to keep safe and prepare in case things change before you go or while you are there. Check the booking terms and conditions on flexibility and refunds because the situation remains fluid. Many travel firms have changed their terms to be fully flexible. Check and subscribe to FCDO travel advice updates to understand the latest entry requirements and COVID-19 rules at their destination – and passengers are advised to check all entry requirements and FCDO travel advice before they book any foreign travel.
IOM releases recommendations to the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has shared its recommendations on migration and mobility with the Slovenian government, which yesterday (01/07) assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the second half of 2021 as the world continues to adjust and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In three key recommendations, IOM encourages the Slovenian Presidency to promote the safe resumption of human mobility for economic and social recovery, advance holistic and coordinated responses to return migration and reintegration, and to factor safe and orderly migration into the EU’s green transition to a climate-neutral economy.
“The Slovenian government takes up the Presidency at a time when recovery from the pandemic is progressing but remains uneven, particularly for some countries and with some populations at greater risk of being left behind,” said Ola Henrikson, IOM Regional Director for the EEA, EU and NATO.
“At the same time, the EU is moving ahead with the European Green Deal while discussions on the new Pact on Migration and Asylum continue,” he said. “This is an opportune moment to factor migration into planning as a vital contributor to resilient economies, environment and public health in the EU, countries of origin and transit.”
IOM therefore encourages the Slovenian Presidency to promote the facilitated resumption of safe human mobility as we emerge from the pandemic to contribute to economic and social recovery in the EU and beyond. As part of this, the Presidency should prioritize digitalization in migration management to resume travel amid COVID-19 while promoting mutually beneficial labour mobility channels that protect migrant workers.
It will be equally important for the EU to ensure adequate and equitable access to health services and vaccination against COVID-19 for all migrants as well as migrant-inclusive policies that help to maximize their prospects for integration into communities and society. Measures to combat xenophobia and discrimination will be crucial to these efforts.
To ensure that intra-regional migration is safe, orderly and regular, IOM believes that the fight against human trafficking and migrants smuggling should integrate migrant protection and capacity building of border and law enforcement authorities in partner countries.
Return, readmission and reintegration are indispensable parts of a comprehensive approach to migration management for many governments worldwide. To be effective, IOM recommends the Slovenian Presidency to promote efforts to encourage balanced, comprehensive route-based responses which secure solid engagement and partnerships among all countries and actors involved. Coupling return with reintegration measures that respond to the needs of migrants and communities where they return can enhance the opportunities for sustainable development in countries of origin.
Under the Slovenian Presidency, the European Green Deal will continue to top the agenda. IOM is convinced that well-managed migration can support the transition to a climate-neutral economy. In line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and in view of the COP26, IOM encourages the Slovenian Presidency to promote the mainstreaming of migration – in all its forms – into the key policy areas and anticipated measures of the European Green Deal.
IOM stands ready to continue its support to the Presidency, the EU and its Member States to implement balanced, comprehensive policies and programmes across the entire migration spectrum and along entire migration routes.
Afghanistan: Addressing child labour through a protection response for undocumented returnees
Child labour is a priority protection concern in Afghanistan with some estimates showing that more than half of children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in work of some kind (AIHRC, 2018). Children in Afghanistan endure some of the worst forms of child labour from being recruited into the armed conflict, to the production of bricks and carpets, as well as in agriculture, mines, and most visibly on the streets as beggars, shoe shiners and porters/vendors.
High rates of poverty, insecurity, displacement, and natural disasters mean sending school-age children out to work is often essential to the survival of families, placing children across Afghanistan at significant risk.
The 2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for Afghanistan indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation further as loss of livelihoods, coupled with school closures to contain the spread of the virus, likely precipitated increases in child labour.
The economic downturn has seen poverty skyrocket in Afghanistan and, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), almost half the population is now in need of humanitarian support – 18.4 million people – , with 90 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line (less than USD 2 a day). This poverty, coupled with the upsurge in insecurity since intra-Afghan peace talks began in September 2020, has seen unprecedented numbers of undocumented Afghan migrants crossing the border from Iran.
Between January-May 2021 alone, more than 490,000 Afghans returned – an increase of 65 per cent on the same period in 2020, of which more than half are deportees.
Undocumented returnees often return worse off than before they left, having sold property and assets or borrowed money in order to pay for their passage. 19 per cent of returnees surveyed in a Whole of Afghanistan Assessment (2020) were found to have taken on catastrophic levels of debt predominantly to cover food and healthcare needs.
The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Protection Monitoring data shows that undocumented returnees increasingly turned to child labour to support their households during the course of the last year (from 19% reported in May-July 2020 to 35% in January 2021). This presents a key protection risk for children – exposing them to physical, sexual and economic exploitation including trafficking, and putting their physical, psychological and emotional development at stake. It constitutes a violation of their fundamental rights and compromises their ability to reach their full potential.
Like many fathers across the country, Noorullah* (40) took the tough decision to go abroad for work when he couldn’t make ends meet. For two years, he worked in Iran as a casual labourer in agriculture, picking fruit and sending remittances home to support his family of seven.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Noorullah was deported for not having any legal documentation at a time when lockdowns and movement restrictions meant finding work in Afghanistan was harder than ever. For 11 months, the family survived on casual labour and the charity of neighbours, living in a damaged house without windows or a door, with no electricity or heating source. The one small solar light they had was stolen by robbers.
The casual farm work he had managed to pick up dried up when winter started, and the family slipped more and more into debt, borrowing from neighbours and using credit to get food from the shop.
To cope with this dire situation, Noorullah resorted to taking his children out of school. His teenage son was sent to work as a live-in servant for another household, and his two younger sons started to beg on the streets, collecting plastic and wood to meet the household’s heating and cooking needs.
The boys had previously been enrolled in the local government school but were forced to stop, joining some 3.7 million (48% of boys and 59% of girls) of all school-age children across Afghanistan who are estimated to be out of school – returnee and internally displaced children even worse off with 55 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls out of school (Afghanistan HNO, 2021).
To address protection risks faced by undocumented returnees, IOM’s Protection Programme works in provinces of high returns and opened a new office in Noorullah’s home province of Badakhshan in January 2021. Having received IOM assistance at the border, Noorullah approached the office for support and the Protection Programme caseworker visited him at his home to discuss his situation in depth and draw an action plan that would allow the family to re-enrol the children in school.
To mitigate the protection risks faced by Noorullah and his family, including child labour, the caseworker provided cash assistance enabling them to buy some essentials for their home – a buhari [a traditional wood-fired heater] and fuel for heating, a solar lamp for lighting the home – and enough to pay back their debts. Together with his wife, Noorullah bought enough flour so they could start a small bakery in their home.
“We started our bakery and, with the support from IOM, we can rent a house in the future and possibly extend our business, so we have income and are able to save for any future needs,” said Bahar*, Noorullah’s wife.
By reducing the economic vulnerability of the household, the protection risks associated with child labour and diversion from education were averted.
The support provided by IOM enabled Noorullah and Bahar to send their children back to school, helping to secure their futures. The two youngest boys stopped begging, and Noorullah brought his eldest son back to live with the family.
The parents are relieved that they can support their children’s education and provide them with a good life thanks to the income of their cottage bakery: “I was exhausted; really sick and tired of doing daily wage jobs. Now I’m self-employed, running a bakery and starting a grocery business which was a dream that has turned into a reality, thanks to IOM’s Protection Programme.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous in a multitude of ways, and in a country where educational needs are exceptionally high, the eradication of child labour remains a key priority for Afghans of all ages. By providing comprehensive assistance to undocumented returnees’ households, IOM aims to build their resilience and reduce the likelihood of child labour amongst some of the most vulnerable communities.
* Not their real names.
IOM Afghanistan is supporting undocumented returnees to access vital protection services thanks to EU Humanitarian Aid.
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