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UNHCR promises “ambitious and progressive” RSD reforms, but favors “graded” implementation

February 3, 2007

Some offices to begin giving individualized reasons for rejection

For the first time, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pledged to provide individualized reasons for decision to some rejected asylum-seekers, and conceded that “our standards could and should be strengthened.”

Facing criticism by a growing group of refugee rights organizations, UNHCR said in September that it is committed to “an ambitious and progressive process of reform” of the way its field offices conduct refugee status determination, which have been faulted for being unfair to applicants.  But UNHCR declined to immediately revise its 2005 Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination because it favors a “graded approach” to raise the performance of field offices.

UNHCR’s comments came in two letters to a group of NGOs from Director of International Protection Services George Okoth-Obobo, in response to concerns raised an open letter they sent to the High Commissioner calling for changes in UNHCR’s RSD policies.

Okoth-Obobo wrote that asylum-seekers would be given individualized information about why they are rejected only in “selected” field offices, as a pilot program that could later be expanded. Refugee rights groups have called on UNHCR to require all of its offices to give specific, individualized reasons for rejection.

Okoth-Obobo also promised to consult with NGOs every four months about the progress of RSD reform.

In September, RSDWatch’s “No Margin for Error” report revealed that several UNHCR field offices were not allowing asylum-seekers to bring legal representatives with them to RSD interviews, even though the right to counsel is guaranteed by UNHCR’s Procedural Standards. Okoth-Obobo wrote that his division “will contact those offices which are not currently following the UNHCR Procedural Standards in this respect to establish what the obstacles may be and how they could be overcome.”

Mixed signals on access to evidence

Okoth-Obobo’s argued in one of the letters (26 September 2006) that there would always be some “exceptional or emergency situations” where it would be impossible to meet all normal fairness benchmarks, and his letters did not answer all criticisms raised by NGOs.

Refugee rights groups have criticized UNHCR for withholding most of the key evidence considered in refugee cases, including RSD interview transcripts and sources of country of origin information. Some UNHCR protection officers have claimed that UNHCR has extensive special sources of information about human rights conditions which cannot be shared.

Okoth-Obobo sought to minimize these concerns. He wrote, “UNHCR relies almost exclusively on publicly available country of origin information. … It is very rare that UNHCR is in possession of information or documents that are material to an eligibility decision but are not able to make any disclosure of this information to an Applicant.”

He also wrote that UNHCR withholds evidence from asylum-seekers only in “exceptional” case, an assertion that appears at odds with actual UNHCR practices in most field offices. Okoth-Obobo did not explain why UNHCR’s Procedural Standards actually prohibit providing applicants copies of their own interview transcripts, and he gave no indication that UNHCR would change this rule.

But in more subtle terms, Okoth-Obobo appeared to partially back away from previous UNHCR justifications for withholding evidence. At least since 2001, UNHCR policy has resisted giving asylum-seekers access to the evidence in their own files out of concern that doing so could put UNHCR staff or refugees in physical danger.

On 26 September, Okoth-Obobo repeated this concern and said that it is “real and difficult.” But he wrote that situations where such security concerns would justify withholding evidence “are not common.”

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