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New report: UNHCR RSD widespread, but reform road bumpy

June 20, 2005

In its new 2004 Global Report, the UN refugee agency announced that it conducts refugee status determination (RSD) in 80 countries around the world, indicating that UNHCR RSD may be substantially more widespread than previously thought. Two-thirds of these countries are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR’s 2001 Statistical Yearbook had put the number of countries where UNHCR conducts RSD at 65, while its statistical yearbook for 2003 had listed only 53 countries.  It is not clear whether the figure of 80 countries represents an actual growth in UNHCR RSD work, or merely more complete reporting.

UNHCR has also just issued provisional global statistics on 2004, and its final  Statistical Yearbook for 2003; RSDWatch is in the process of analyzing the new reports for a more detailed picture of the scope of UNHCR RSD operations around the world.

Has RSD reform hit a snag?

The Global Report, UNHCR’s annual self-portrait of its activities around the world, contains a new update on the ongoing effort to improve the way the UN decides refugee cases. UNHCR promised to release proposed changes to the public in 2005, but indicated that its long awaited RSD reform program may have run up against resistance.

UNHCR’s new report includes a renewed commitment to reform: “The Agenda for Protectioncalled on states to assume their proper responsibilities for RSD, just as it asks UNHCR to improve its own mandate processes.”

Since at least 2003, UNHCR officials have been promising reform of agency’s RSD work, but specifics of the reform process have not been released to the public. UNHCR has announced that it has developed new guidelines on procedural fairness, but to date has not published them. UNHCR has been criticized because its RSD procedures often fail to meet the standards of fairness that UNHCR sets for governments.

UNHCR stated:

The varied operational environments in which UNHCR undertakes RSD make the ‘RSD Procedural Standards.’ Issued in December 2003, a challenge to implement. Support and implementation missions in 2004 assisted in evaluating the impact and level of implementation of the standards. This process will expand to include NGOs and governments in 2005 with a view to the promulgation of standards externally while simultaneously ensuring that they are effectively implemented internally within UNHCR.

Because they have not been published to date, it is not known whether the 2003 RSD Procedural Standards represent a re-affirmation of already recognized norms, or an effective retreat by UNHCR.

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