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Kenyan crisis fuels overall growth in UNHCR RSD, while applications in Middle East and Asia slow

September 25, 2006

A surge in refugee applications in Kenya fueled an overall increase in UNHCR’s refugee status determination cases worldwide, according to RSDWatch’s analysis of UNHCR’s global statistical report for 2005. There were at least 88,415 new applicants at 54 UNHCR offices that reported annual statistical data, almost 13,000 more than reported in 2004.

For the third straight year UNHCR’s RSD operations grew around the world while applications to governments declined overall. UNHCR continued to be the world’s largest decision-maker on refugee status, receiving more new individual applicants than any single government.

Yet the overall growth was fueled almost entirely by one country, Kenya, where a government demand that all foreigners register themselves led 24,000 people to apply to UNHCR in Nairobi in a three-month period in early summer 2005. By the end of the year, UNHCR received more then 39,000 new applicants in Kenya, compared to 9,329 the year before.

In addition to Kenya, UNHCR RSD operations grew significantly in two other African states, Eritrea and Cameroon, which together combined for 4,500 new applicants in 2005.

RSDWatch’s analysis indicates that UNHCR RSD actually declined in Asia and in the Middle East, the regions that have hosted the most UNCHR RSD activity in recent years. But just as the Kenyan surge may appear to be a one-time event, it is difficult to say whether declines elsewhere represent long term trends.

Local events produce volatile statistics

Although UNHCR conducts RSD in up to 80 countries, most of those operations are quite small in terms of the number of applications. Just 10 countries accounted for 88 percent of all UNHCR applications in 2005, and only 12 UNHCR offices received more than a thousand applicants.*

This concentration of activity means that dramatic local events can produce substantial global statistical changes.

In 2003 and 2004 Malaysia was the site of the largest UNHCR RSD operation in the world. At the time, human rights groups were alarmed by a planned government crackdown on irregular migrants. Malaysia was UNHCR’s second largest RSD operation in 2005, with more than 15,000 new applicants, but that was actually a 27 percent annual decline.

In at least two countries, significant drops in new applications appeared linked to UNHCR’s decision to suspend individual RSD, rather than a simple decline in the number of people who wanted to apply.

In Egypt, UNHCR reported 7,223 fewer new applicants in 2005 than in 2004. But during the year mass protests by Sudanese refugees led UNHCR to close its Cairo office to new applications for almost a quarter of the year. The Sudanese were protesting UNHCR’s decision to suspend individual RSD and resettlement, a policy that likely discouraged new arrivals from applying.

Similarly, RSD applications to UNHCR in Thailand declined by more than 50 percent, where only 1,076 new people applied in 2005. As in Egypt, there was continued controversy in Thailand over the suspension of individual RSD for Burmese asylum-seekers.

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