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UNHCR-Beirut tests sharing evidence with legal representatives in RSD applications

August 1, 2007

Pilot project breaks with longstanding policy by letting legal aid program review UNHCR files and case assessments

Since January 2007, UNHCR‘s office in Beirut has engaged in a pilot project to provide refugee applicants nearly complete access to the evidence considered in their RSD cases, according to the Lebanese refugee and migrant rights organization Frontiers Association.

The project may be a breakthrough, because critics have long complained about withholding of evidence as one of the main gaps in UNHCR’s RSD procedures, and UNHCR has previously given mixed signals about whether it intends to change policy.

Under the pilot project, whenever Frontiers provides legal aid to asylum-seekers in RSD applications it is able to have access to the contents of their files at UNHCR, and to obtain a copy of interview transcripts and UNHCR’s assessment of the case, though with the names of UNHCR staff members removed.

Normally, UNHCR’s RSD standards require field offices to provide asylum-seekers “originals or copies of all documents they provided to UNHCR, or of which they are the source.” But UNHCR generally withholds “documents generated by UNHCR or a source other than the individual concerned.” UNHCR’s rules specifically prohibit providing applicants copies of their own interview transcripts. Such restrictions conflict with standard rules of due process, and with UNHCR’s own advice to governments.

By providing legal advisors access to normally internal case assessment, the pilot project also effectively provides asylum-seekers specific reasons for rejection. In late 2006, UNHCR pledged “ambitious and progressive” reforms of its RSD procedures around the world, with particular focus on providing more specific reasons for rejection.

Until 2005, UNHCR-Beirut did not permit the right to counsel in RSD cases, in violation of UNHCR’s general policy. With the 2007 pilot project, UNHCR-Beirut may now be exceeding the minimal standards developed by the agency for its RSD operations. However, Frontiers reports that UNHCR-Beirut continues to withhold selected documents from applicants for security reasons and it is not clear whether refugee applicants without legal representation get similar access to their case files.

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