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Still secret: UNHCR continues to refuse to let asylum-seekers see the evidence in their own files

September 19, 2005

In August 2001, UNHCR’s Department of International Protection sent UNHCR field offices internal instructions to refuse asylum-seekers access to most of the information in their own files. While acknowledging “everyone’s right to know whether information concerning her/him is being processed [and] to obtain it in intelligible form,” UNHCR prohibited the disclosure of most information produced by UNHCR.

In refugee status determination cases, this meant that an asylum-seeker could ask for a copy of his or her own submissions. But an applicant could not obtain transcripts of his or her own interviews, UNHCR’s assessments of his or her refugee claim, medical reports about his or her own body or mental health solicited by UNHCR, country of origin reports considered in his or her case or evidence provided about the case by third parties.

The August 2001 memo justified these restrictions by UNHCR’s need to “weigh its own interests (such as staff safety considerations or protection of UNHCR’s sources of information).” Yet the policy conflicted with international human rights law, principles of administrative law, and UNHCR own advice to governments.

In its newly published Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate, UNHCR left these restrictions unchanged. Without providing any general justification for its use of secret evidence, UNHCR instructed its field offices to continue to withhold “documents generated by UNHCR or a source other than the individual concerned.” The standards specifically prohibit providing applicants a copy of their interview transcript, although they allow UNHCR staff to read back portions of the transcripts orally.

Elsewhere, UNHCR’s standards warn that allowing asylum-seeker’s to review the statements by other witnesses, especially family members, could pose a safety risk.

Without access to their files, asylum-seekers will face difficulty correcting inaccuracies or offering rebuttals or clarifications to damaging evidence. UNHCR has advised the Council of Europe that asylum-seekers and decision makers should generally have equal access to evidence except in “clearly defined cases in which disclosure of such sources would jeopardise national security or the security of organisations or persons providing the information in question.”

In a recent column, RSDWatch founder Michael Kagan wrote, “If UNHCR allowed applicants to view their own files, it would pull the wizard from behind the screen. The legitimacy of UNHCR’s decision-making would rest on the actual quality of its work, rather than on assumptions of its expertise. That is why UNHCR offices and officials are likely to resist transparency in refugee status determination.”

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