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November ’51 memorandum showed early origins of UNHCR RSD

June 16, 2006

UNHCR’s current role in refugee status determination in dozens of countries can be traced to a 15 November 1951 memorandum issued less than a year after the General Assembly established the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the memo, the High Commissioner, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, reports that “one government has already requested the High Commissioner to assume the task of determining the eligibility of refugees within its territory. It is not impossible that other Governments will make the same request.” The memo questions whether the UNHCR has the legal authority to conduct RSD, and eventually concludes that the High Commissioner has a “duty” to determine refugee status, but only when “necessary.”

“In the opinion of the High Commissioner, this procedure should be regarded as an exceptional one,” the memo says.

The 1951 memorandum was issued at a time when the High Commissioner’s office was struggling both for funds and political influence, especially because the United States resisted its role. It notes that refugee protection is primarily a government responsibility, and that UNHCR should work “at all times in close collaboration with Governments, and frequently through them,” but that UNHCR’s mandate also gave it the “right to act and mediate on behalf of refugees.”

Like the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees, UNHCR’s 1950 mandate did not mention refugee status determination specifically. Adding confusion, the UNHCR mandate in some sections provides an individualized refugee definition, but in other sections instructs the High Commission to work with “groups and categories” of refugees. There was thus doubt about whether UNHCR should conduct an individualized procedure like RSD.

Goedhart reasoned that the mandate to work only with groups “should be considered as a guiding principle … rather than as a hard and fast rule which would exclude any activity connected with individual cases.” Determining refugee status would be a “duty” for UNHCR “in any circumstances which may make this function necessary.” As an example, Goedhart suggested that UNHCR could conduct RSD when requested to do so by a government, or where UNHCR RSD could help refugees regularize their status in a host country or obtain a travel document.

Charting an ad hoc course

The 1951 memo’s admonition that UNHCR RSD should be exceptional contrasts with circumstances 54 years later, when UNHCR conducted RSD in at least 80 countries.

The 1951 memorandum does not outline any safeguards that UNHCR operations should follow in their RSD activities.  Rather than set out a specific strategy to determine when UNHCR should conduct RSD, Goedhart advocated a “working procedure which should be as flexible as possible.” Goedhart also declined to set up a separate administrative unit within his Office to conduct RSD, as the International Refugee Organization (IRO) had done previously.

Goedhart argued that UNHCR did not need “special administrative machinery” to conduct RSDbecause UNHCR did not face the same burdens with which the IRO had to contend.  In the early 1950s, UNHCR’s activity was largely restricted to legal protection, while the IRO provided direct material assistance to refugees. Goedhart wrote, “In view of the considerable cost incurred on behalf of each refugee within its mandate it was necessary for the IRO to determine eligibility of each individual applicant.”

This logic is notable because UNHCR in fact began providing direct assistance to refugees very soon after Goedhart’s RSD memo was issued. Today UNHCR offices in many countries conduct RSD with nearly every applicant, often as a first step to determining eligibility for direct material assistance or promotion of durable solutions like resettlement.

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