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Eleven groups call on Guterres to change RSD policies, warn that errors go undetected

September 6, 2006

Eleven refugee rights organizations have written to High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres criticizing the weakness of current UNHCR procedural standards in refugee status determination and calling for immediate changes to prevent mistaken rejection of people in danger of persecution.

The joint letter was sent on the anniversary of the publication of new RSD standards for use in UNHCR field offices. The organizations, including Jesuit Refugee Service, the International Refugee Rights Initiative and legal aid and advocacy centers based in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, complained that many of the reforms included in the new Standards were non-binding, and that even those that are mandatory have not been implemented at some UNHCR field offices.

A recent European Court of Human Rights ruling effectively overturned a decision by UNHCR to refuse protection to an Iranian woman. In the European Court case, UNHCR had based its decision on unspecified information about Iran but UNHCR declined to reveal its sources. The court ultimately found UNHCR’s assessment of the case wrong on both factual and legal grounds.

Few asylum-seekers rejected by UNHCR have the chance to appeal to independent tribunals like the European Court of Human Rights. “We are concerned that without essential reform of their procedures, errors in refugee status determination at UNHCR field offices will usually go undetected and uncorrected,” the groups said in their letter.

Last year, in his first press conference as high commissioner, Guterres stressed the importance of fair RSD as a foundation for refugee protection. In an April 2005 speech, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller emphasized that fair RSD requires an appeal to “an authority different from and independent of that making the initial decision.” UNHCR has told the Council of Europe that asylum-seekers and decision-makers should normally have access to the same evidence, which is not usually the case in UNHCR’s own procedures.

UNHCR has not yet agreed to hold itself to the same benchmarks it advocates for governments.UNHCR’s official position is that unspecified constraints make it impossible for field offices toimplement the same standards as governments.

In their letter, the NGOs rejected this position. “We recognize that your field offices work under tremendous strain and that implementation of full standards of due process is a challenge,” they wrote to Guterres. “But we reject any notion that UNHCR is incapable of respecting refugees’ rights to due process.”

The letter noted that while the new Standards were published only in September 2005, they were distributed internally in November 2003. “It is now time to make the Procedural Standards fully binding, and to erase the gaps between UNHCR advice to governments and UNHCR’s own practices,” it said.

Read the full letter

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