Refugees in Jordan Are Using Their Eyes to Pay for Groceries

An iris-scanning system is helping them get the food they need in the most secure and efficient way possible.

Syrian refugees walk outside a small shop at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the city of Mafraq, Jordan, near the Syrian border. (Photo: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Feb 17, 2016· 1 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

The days of dealing with stolen food vouchers and prepaid electronic cards are gone for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. Instead, they can now pay for groceries with their eyes when checking out at the supermarket.

On Tuesday, those living in King Abdullah Park refugee camp started purchasing food simply by looking into a machine.

The technology, headed by the United Nations World Food Programme, is nothing new, considering the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees already uses iris-scanning technology to identify refugees when they first register with the agency; in March, the agency also partnered with Jordan-based banks so refugees could get cash from ATMs through the eye-scanning system. However, this is the first instance of it being implemented in select supermarkets.

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

The system analyzes biometric registration data supplied by the UNHCR that can identify a refugee quite literally in the blink of an eye. Once a person is confirmed as a refugee in the UNHCR’s data bank, payment is deducted from the individual's monthly food allowance, and a receipt is printed.

After WFP tests the program in northern Jordan, there are plans to expand the system into other camps.

According to the UNHCR, there are more than 650,000 refugees living in Jordan—the King Abdullah Park camp hosts about 1,000 of them, according to Mashable.

Though the WFP has been providing refugees with food vouchers ever since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the program has faced funding struggles over the years. In September, the U.N. agency had to cut a third of Syrian refugees in Middle East host countries, including 229,000 refugees in Jordan, from its food voucher program. The number of those receiving vouchers fell from 2.1 million to 1.4 million at the beginning of last year.