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Refugee groups call standards “an important step forward,” but criticize secret evidence and appeals policy

October 9, 2005

A global coalition of non-governmental organizations called the publication of procedural standards for UNHCR refugee status determination procedures “an important step forward” but expressed concern about the lack of progress toward establishing an independent appeal system or easing the agency’s policy of withholding evidence from asylum-seekers.

The NGO statement was delivered at the annual UNHCR Executive Committee meetings in Geneva, around one month after UNHCR published its first ever comprehensive standards governing its own RSD procedures. The NGOs credited UNHCR with recognizing “the importance of legal aid, greater transparency and the need to provide reasons for rejections.”

At the same time, a group of seven legal aid organizations in the Middle East and Africa also welcomed the standards, but cautioned that much of the 170-page document contains ambiguous and non-binding wording. “When combined with the absence of rigorous implementing procedures, these ambiguities risk undermining the relevance of the standards,”  they warned.

Offering comments to UNHCR aimed at future revisions of the standards, the legal aid organizations focused much of their comments on the treatment of vulnerable refugees, and on specific cases where the standards leave critical decisions in the hands of local eligibility officers without effective accountability. While echoing praise for greater emphasis on transparency, the group noted that UNHCR still has yet to clearly require its field offices to give reasons for rejection, and called UNHCR’s policy on withholding evidence a violation of law.

newsletter published by the US-based International Refugee Rights Initiative said, “As the first such statement of UNHCR practice, the Standards provide advocates with an important new tool for assessing the progress of UNHCR’s reform process as a whole, in addition to serving as a benchmark for individual UNHCR offices worldwide.”

UNHCR reaffirms protection and transparency

Meanwhile, high ranking UNHCR officials expressed a general commitment toward further RSD improvements.

High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told more than 300 NGO representativesmeeting before the Executive Committee session that transparency was essential for strong cooperation between UNHCR and civil society.  He later told governments at the opening of the Executive Committee meetings: “Our mandate requires that we put the needs of refugees and others of concern before all else. … That is why it is so important to reassert that we are, above all, a protection agency.”

UNHCR has been criticized for being insufficiently accountable to refugees, and for steadily transforming itself into a vehicle for humanitarian aid, de-emphasizing protection of refugee rights in the process. Since taking office in June, Guterres has repeatedly emphasized protection and transparency as cornerstones of the agency’s work.

Guterres did not mention UNHCR’s RSD procedures in his official remarks, but spoke about the general importance of reliable systems for separating refugees from other migrants.

“Guarding borders must not prevent physical access to asylum procedures or fair refugee status determination for those entitled to it by international law,” he said. “Let me be very clear: measures against fraud and abuse are part of delivering protection and essential for the credibility of the asylum system.”

Director of International Protection Erika Feller told the Executive Committee that UNHCR would continue working to improve its RSD procedures. She also told governments that UNHCR has a clear mandate to conduct RSD.

“Clearly it is very difficult for UNHCR to carry out its statutory duties unless refugees are identified as such,” Feller said.

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