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RSD migrates south

June 29, 2005

UNHCR’s most recent global statistics on asylum application reported 23 percent growth in RSD applications to UN offices in 2004. The 75,000 individual refugee claims filed with UNHCR offices represented the second straight year of growth and UNHCR’s  highest reported RSD figure since at least 1998.

These figures are taken from analysis of provisional 2004 data released on 17 June. Yet, in a commentary to its 2003 Statistical Yearbook released just two days earlier, UNHCR said: “The UNHCR role in refugee status determination has decreased over the past five years. In 2003, UNHCR registered 36 percent of all asylum requests in non-industrialized countries, down from 53 percent in 1999.”

This trend may have been reversed in 2004, given the significant increase in UN applications. But UNHCR applications also increased in 2003. Can UNHCR’s role shrink while its applications increase?

Trying to define the importance of UNHCR RSD globally is complicated by regional differences. Generally speaking, UNHCR RSD is a dominant feature of refugee protection Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa. It is relatively rare elsewhere.

Government-run RSD in the geopolitical south

UNHCR is correct to note that it does not have a monopoly on RSD in the developing world. There are two particular regions of the geopolitical south — Latin America and Southern Africa — where individual RSD is operated mainly by governments, just as in western countries.

The two largest RSD systems in South America in 2004 were both government-run: Ecuador (7,900 applications) and Venezuela (2,200 applications). Governments take responsibility for RSD in nearly every Latin American country except Panama.

Southern Africa is similar. South Africa’s government now operates one of the largest RSD systems in the world (32,500 applications in 2004). There are smaller government-run RSD systems in every African country south of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as in Tanzania and a few countries in west and central Africa.

What appears to be happening is that individual RSD is no longer exclusive to wealthy countries of the geopolitical north. Asylum systems in the north tend to be based on individual RSD, and prima facie or group-based status is more common in the south. But the dichotomy can no longer be taken for granted. In 2004, UNHCR reports that 86 percent of refugees in Africa and 72 percent in Asia/Pacific enjoyed prima facie or group status. But UNHCR also reported that 24 percent of the refugees in Europe now have their legal status recognized through a prima facie or group system. Some individual RSD systems in the South, both UNHCR and government administered, are as large as many in Europe.

This confirms something that human rights advocates have been warning of for years. As western countries put up more and more barriers to asylum-seekers reaching their shores, the burden of receiving asylum claims is shifting to the countries along their frontiers. Since UNHCR RSD is concentrated in northern parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it is likely to remain important and may grow in some regions. Government-run RSD systems in the global south may grow simultaneously.

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