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Saturday 16 December 2017

Fingerprint system that cost €20m lying idle

Technology bought four years ago to crack down on welfare fraud

JIM CUSACK

A €20m computerised finger printing system which was supposed to link up with British and other European police forces to detect immigrants illegally claiming social welfare, is lying unused four years after it was installed in the Garda Immigration Bureau.

It was due to be operated by civil servants as part of an integrated system linked to ports and airports and would detect people using different identities to travel, particularly between here and Britain, to claim benefits.

Gardai admit they have no way of differentiating between genuine people seeking asylum or work visas here and those using fake identities to make cross-border benefit claims. They point to the fact that during the closure of air routes as a result of the volcanic ash cloud episode earlier this year more than 3,500 claimants failed to sign on for benefits.

The Automated Fingerprint Integrated System (AFIS) was announced in 2005 and €18m was initially set aside for its installation by 2006. It is in place in the Garda National Bureau of Immigration (GNBI) offices in Burgh Quay in Dublin city centre and has cost a considerable amount of extra money to keep it operational even though it has never been used.

Civilian staff hired by the garda were expected to use the system but the 50 staff at the GNIB headquarters, who are members of the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU), have refused to operate it, saying it is inappropriate for clerical staff to do a job that gardai should do.

AFIS involves the visa or asylum applicant being taken into a dedicated room for finger and palm printing.

The CPSU has argued that this is work for gardai and not civilian staff. It has also been looking for an extra allowance for the work. The CPSU did not respond to a query last week.

However, a similar system has been in operation by other civil servants working for the Department of Justice at its Naturalisation and Immigration Service based in Dublin and linked to ports and airports. It has processed some 20,000 full fingerprints since 2008 when it was introduced.

The importance of the garda system, however, is that it is supposed to be linked to other EU police forces and this is not happening. It's most important role would be to help identify foreign terrorists or criminals travelling between EU countries.

Another vital element of such a system is that it might be able to help detect the disturbing number of immigrant children and young people who go missing every year. At present, some 424 boys and girls under 17 who arrived here in recent years have disappeared and remain unaccounted for.

Gardai admit that they have no idea how many of the people who have arrived in Ireland and are claiming entitlements to benefits are here on fake identities.

They also privately admit that most of those being "rounded up" and deported are often people who have honestly identified themselves and who genuinely want to live and work here having escaped from extremely difficult circumstances. Those with access to fake identities are slipping through the system while the genuine asylum seekers are being processed in large numbers through the courts and deported, source say.

The lack of information on welfare benefit fraud was highlighted by the failure of 3,515 people to sign on the 12 days up to April 18 when the ash cloud hit air traffic across Europe.

However, the Department of Social Protection admits that anything up to this number fail to sign on almost every week. There are, gardai insist, no proper forms of investigation into false claimants.

The contract for AFIS was unveiled in November 2006 by the then Justice Minister Michael McDowell. A consortium led by consultants Accenture was put in place and delivered the system.

Mr McDowell said that the system would help "strengthen the effectiveness of the immigration system. Allowing fingerprint data of migrants to be taken (which is already a requirement laid down by law) electronically will significantly enhance the integrity of our immigration system and allow the GNIB, in particular, to more rapidly detect and deal with cases of identity abuse".

GNIB officers and other gardai have detected huge numbers of fake identities though little progress has been made in pursuing people once they leave Ireland.

A storeroom in the Burgh Quay offices is said by officers to be "stuffed" with fake identities seized by gardai.

Sunday Independent

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