Bhalisa workshop 4 : The global politics of northern European systems of population registration

Specimen Norwegian ID CardA Bhalisa symposium
Location : Hosted by University of Bergen, Faculty of Law
June 27 – 29, 2022

The on-line programme for this event is here.

Over the last decade many countries around the world have begun to adopt the systems of comprehensive population registration that are common in northern Europe. The Indian Aadhaar project is the best known of these very large new identification databases, but similar systems have been announced in countries like Uganda and Tanzania. With the encouragement of donors, global technology firms, financial and tax regulations, and new models of digital welfare, something like a global movement towards systematic, computerised population registration is now well underway.

The history of population registration in the northern European countries has long been an important, if often unrecognised, model for the development of similar systems of identification around the world. (This precedent can be clearly seen in the Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Automation of Population Registration Systems in Jerusalem in 1967). In part, this is a history of the informational requirements and effects of a comprehensive welfare state. Yet the specific forms of population registration, their drivers, powers and limits – which vary significantly in each national system in northern Europe – are not well understood. In all of the Scandinavian countries, for example, tax administration was important for the development of computerised population registration during the 1950s and 1960s. This connection between population registration and tax visibility is an important, largely unexamined, international problem as the poorest countries – with support from the OECD – turn to improving tools of tax transparency. The problem is not confined to countries with weak administrative infrastructures. Growing public awareness of the importance of ‘secrecy jurisdictions’ around the globe, which have enabled certain individuals to hide their identities from both rich and poor states, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of secure identity in relation to their financial assets is raising international interest in the democratic and development consequences of personal tax visibility. Similarly, little attention has been paid to the specific forms of exclusion and marginalisation that are fostered by the infrastructures of registration in each of these countries – and their combined effects on migrant and refugee populations from other parts of the world.

Many of the poorest countries have begun to adopt centralised population registers and person-number systems that were developed in northern Europe after World War Two. Often these new systems are organised biometrically, recording and allocating legal identities -- where they work effectively -- in the absence of an existing infrastructure of birth registration. The new population registers are also, typically, emerging in a national legal and institutional context that has few of the regulatory resources (and debates) that have historically shaped their uses, and limits, in northern Europe. The poorest countries are also experimenting with new forms of phone-based credit and welfare payments, and digital asset registers that may reinforce or undermine the benefits of population registration. At the same time, the global security crisis, large migrant population movements and the policing of credentials and identification within Europe is generating potent new crises of exclusion. These very different contexts of population registration are increasingly connected by the investments of donors, the products of international firms, common financial regulations, the internet and the movement of people.

In this workshop we seek to assess the development, benefits, risks and futures of northern European models of civil registration and population registration in different national and socioeconomic contexts, and across international borders and to compare these models with the current experiences being promoted in developing countries. We aim to understand how the different models enhance inclusion or, on the contrary, exacerbate patterns of exclusion of particularly vulnerable categories of populations e.g. refugees, migrants, indigenous and stateless.

We invite colleagues to prepare papers or presentations on themes that could include historical and/or contemporary studies of the following.

Institutional design

  • the routes to achieving universal registration of civil status events and comprehensive population registries;
  • the role of non-state identity providers, including the links between national identification programmes and commercial functional identifications;
  • Widespread sharing of data among government institutions for the purposes of identification of individuals, the provision of social services, and the compilation of national statistics;
  • the development of eID, and the new challenges of identity theft and cybersecurity;
  • the potential incorporation of biometrics into existing systems;
  • the evolution of privacy law, institutions and regulatory capacity applied to these problems;
  • the development of systems of tax visibility and accounting.

Challenges of inclusion and exclusion

  • the complexity of incorporating vulnerable groups into identification systems;
  • the mechanisms to integrate immigrant and refugee populations into the national population register;
  • the consequences of deploying technologies of biometric identification in the management of migration and refugee status;
  • the impact of legal frameworks and the institutional design of identification and civil registration systems for access to citizenship and nationality.