Karen Fog Olwig, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

Biometric and Socially Contingent Family Relations: Family Reunification among Somali Refugees in Denmark

During the past two decades it has become common practice internationally to require biometric verification of family relations, when refugees and migrants applying for family reunification have no, or no “credible”, documents that can prove the claimed family relationships. Biometric technologies treat individuals’ family as a nuclear unit that can be proved bio-genetically. Thus, they involve DNA analysis of parents and children to determine whether they have the proper genetic relationship, as well as bone scannings of children and x-rays of their teeth to assess whether their biological age grants them a legal right to be part of the family. This understanding of family relations could not be further from current anthropological thinking which emphasizes the wide variety and contingency of family ties, the often complicated and ambiguous relationship between social norms and actual family practices, and the vital importance of distinguishing between genetic-biological information and social identities when ascertaining the nature of family relations. Indeed, the biometric approach seems to serve primarily the bureaucratic need to establish firm, easy-to-follow policies, rather than the right of refugees to “respect for family life,” as stated in article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. My ongoing ethnographic research on family reunification among refugees in Denmark confirms that it is, in many ways, deeply problematic to define family life in terms of a unit of individuals who can be identified biometrically. But the research also suggests that adopting a more fluid, socially contingent conception of family life, as the basis of family reunification, generates another set of problems. In this paper I will discuss these issues, drawing on my research on Somali family reunification in Denmark.

Karen Fog Olwig is a professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. She has published extensively on migration, particularly in a Caribbean and Danish context, and is currently engaged in a major research project, “Biometric Border Worlds Technologies, bodies and identities on the move,” that examines the development, use and experience of biometric technologies in border control. Her sub-project focuses on the role of biometric technologies in refugees’ family unification in a Danish context.

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