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UNHCR sets 1 September date for release of new RSD standards

July 11, 2005

RSDWatch has learned that the UN refugee agency will publish long-awaited new refugee status determination procedural standards on 1 September 2005. The new standards are the centerpiece of an effort to reform the way UNHCR offices decide individual applications for refugee protection. Their release will give refugee rights advocates their first opportunity to assess UNHCR’s reform initiatives.

More than 70,000 people applied to UNHCR’s refugee status determination (RSD) procedures in around 80 countries in 2004. UNHCR’s RSD procedures have been criticized for failing to meet standards of fairness that UNHCR advocates for governments, but efforts to improve them have met with mixed results.

The announcement appeared in a 24 June internal memo that has been obtained by RSDWatch, sent by the Department of International Protection (DIP) in Geneva to all UNHCR field missions.

UNHCR has given comprehensive advice to governments on fairness in RSD, but has been criticized because its own offices often fail to implement the same standards, especially in terms of giving reasons for rejection, providing an independent appeal system, and being transparent with applicants about the evidence used in their cases.

It is not known whether the new standards are an attempt to apply to UNHCR offices the guidelines that UNHCR has long promoted for governments, or an attempt by the agency to articulate lower standards for its own offices.

UNHCR distributed the new RSD standards internally in November 2003. The memo says that they were not originally published “to allow field offices sufficient time to incorporate them.” DIP said in the memo that it is now preparing to publish the standards because “after eighteen months of gradual implementation, it is felt that the Office’s policy of transparency concerning its rules and standards call for the RSD Procedural Standards to be released externally.” The new standards may be amended again in the future.

UNHCR has promised RSD reform for several years and has hired consultants to review its policies. But the agency has so far kept the process relatively closed, with little information released to the public.

Anticipating criticism?

The DIP memo hints that the new standards may not end criticism of UNHCR’s RSD work. It reports that some offices have already put the revised procedures into practice, while others “should put more consistent efforts into implementation.” The memo also reports that “others are facing genuine constraints with full implementation.” According to the memo, inadequate training and expertise and high staff turnover are key stumbling blocks in some offices.

DIP warned UNHCR offices to expect “that interested counterparts will start measuring the level of compliance of UNHCR with its own standards” and encouraged them “to initiate informal consultations with their local RSD counterparts, such as NGOs, independent lawyers and/or government officials.”

In the memo, DIP expressed the hope that NGOs would support UNHCR’s “efforts in advocating for governments to assume their responsibilities in determining the status of persons seeking asylum on their territory,” noting that “RSD is often undertaken by UNHCR by default.”

The memo also announced that DIP will discuss the new RSD standards with “selected Geneva-based NGOs and key government counterparts” over the coming months. RSD supervisors from UNHCR field offices will meet in Geneva in October to take “stock of the level of implementation of the RSD Procedural Standards as well as creating a community of practice.”

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