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UNHCR RSD reform developments 2002-2004

February 1, 2005

In recent years, UNHCR has repeatedly announced a commitment to improve its RSD activities. UNHCR’s 2002 Agenda for Protection called for UNHCR to commit “more resources to  improve the quality and consistency globally of its mandate refugee status determination processes.”

In October 2003, UNHCR’s Director of International Protection Erika Feller told the UNHCR Executive Committee:

This autumn, the Department will issue a procedural standards directive for refugee status determination under UNHCR’s mandate. The purpose of the latter is to promote greater harmonization in UNHCR’s RSD procedures and to improve standards of due process, integrity and oversight.

On October 7, 2004, Feller told the Executive Committee:

DIP has also increased its operational support to the field on RSD-related matters, even while it is assessing the results of the field testing of theProcedural Standards for RSD Under UNHCR’s Mandate, which were issued at the end of last year and distributed for initial implementation among Field Offices. We are also undertaking a concerted analysis of the role of RSD in UNHCR’s global protection strategies, with a view to seeing where we should be strengthening our efforts, as well as where RSD might not be the correct response.

To date, UNHCR has not made public any of these documents referred to in these official statements about reform, although NGOs have called on UNHCR to initiate public consultations (see below).

… while NGOs call for an independent assessment

At the 55th annual session of the UNHCR Executive Committee meeting in Geneva in October 2004, a joint statement by non-governmental organizations said the following about UNHCR refugee status determination activities:

[W]hile recognizing the important role played by UNHCR in asylum determination procedures in many countries worldwide, NGOs have concerns thatsome of UNHCR’s refugee status determination (RSD) practices in some countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia do not always meet the standards of fairness to which UNHCR urges states to adhere. This includes the use of secret evidence; failure to provide reasons for rejection to unsuccessful applicants; the lack of independent appeals processes; denial of the right to legal counsel; and the use of untrained interpreters. NGOs feel UNHCR’s role in RSD can potentially compromise the organization’s mandate to protect refugees and reiterate that refugee status determination is the responsibility of states. UNHCR should not see its role in RSD as a substitute for government-run procedures. UNHCR should make it a priority that governments take over these activities and build their capacity to do so. We call on UNHCR to initiate public consultations on the new draft refugee status determination procedures.1

In a separate joint statement about UNHCR’s Evaluation and inspection program, NGOs called for an independent assessment of UNHCR’s RSD work:

[W]e would like to strongly recommend, as was suggested at a previous session of the Executive Committee, that an independent evaluation be carried out on UNHCR’s refugee status determination (RSD) activities. As noted in our statement on International Protection to EXCOM, we are concerned that UNHCR’s role in RSD can potentially compromise the organisation’s mandate to protect refugees. UNHCR currently conducts RSD in more than 60 countries and more than half of these are parties to the 1951 Convention.

We would suggest that such an independent global evaluation be carried out by a team that includes international human rights lawyers, international and national NGOs working on refugee issues, academics, and legal aid practitioners. The issues that should be examined in the evaluation include an inventory of the RSD procedures that are applied in each UNHCR field office, with an examination of the possible solutions to the political, financial, and human resource constraints that contribute to RSD procedures that do not fulfill practices advocated by UNHCR. The evaluation should recommend rights-based RSD procedures to be followed consistently by all field protection officers with a mechanism to ensure their implementation.2

These statements were organized by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). The full texts can be accessed on the ICVA website.

1 NGO Statement on International Protection, UNHCR’s Executive Committee, 4-8 October 2004, 8 October 2004.

2 NGO Statement on Evaluation and Inspection Activities, UNHCR’s Executive Committee, 4-8 October 2004, 10 October 2004.

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