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Statistics show UNHCR more likely to protect asylum-seekers than most governments

July 24, 2008

UNHCR officials have noted recently that UNHCR’s recognition rates in refugee status determination are higher on average than governments.

RSDWatch’s analysis of recently published statistics confirms that UNHCR offices are statistically more willing to protect refugees than governments overall, and especially more than governments with strict asylum regimes. RSDWatch also found that UNHCR recognition rates have improved in recent years (see separate article). Yet strong government RSD systems are still sometimes more generous than UNHCR offices.

Despite continuing concern by NGOs about lack of procedural fairness in UNHCR RSD procedures, these statistics point to a relative strength of UNHCR RSD that may not have been fully acknowledged in the past. While some governments are demonstrably hostile toward refugee claims, UNHCR offices appear more inclined overall to protect refugees, just as UNHCR’s protection mandate would suggest that they should be.

UNHCR is the world’s largest decision-maker on refugee status and has a mandate to supervise refugee protection, so that gaps in the fairness of its RSD procedures would be a concern even though UNHCR performs better than many governments. UNHCR has taken steps in recent years to improve the fairness of its procedures, especially in terms of the right to counsel and provision of reasons for rejection. UNHCR still does not disclose most of the key evidence that is considers in refugee cases, however, violating advice the agency has given to governments. Nevertheless, these statistics are a reminder that government-run RSD systems need reform as well, and in some cases more urgently.

International refugee law generally assumes that governments should take responsibility for conducting RSD. UNHCR officials often stress their desire to persuade governments to take back the responsibility for doing so in the dozens of countries where UNHCR conducts RSD. Some critics of UNHCR have argued that UNHCR should pull out of doing RSD entirely. Yet in statistical terms many refugees may be relatively fortunate in to apply to UNHCR offices rather than to governments.

Comparing apples to oranges?

In the past, RSDWatch has not examined recognition rates in detail because they are extremely difficult to analyze and are at best only a very rough gauge of the quality of a refugee status determination system. RSDWatch conducted this analysis only after UNHCR officials began using recognition rates to argue that UNHCR’s RSD procedures are relatively good.

A major problem with comparing UNHCR and government recognition rates is that they may not actually be reporting the same thing. The standard refugee definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention is interpreted quite narrowly in some countries, especially in Europe, leading to a low Convention recognition rate. Yet some of these countries still grant protection to many refugees through complimentary statuses. Italy, for instance, granted Convention refugee status to only 23 percent of Afghan asylum-seekers in 2007, but it gave protection of some form to 98%.

Meanwhile, some African states have very high recognition rates, but use the broader African refugee definition. UNHCR offices usually only recognize formal refugee status, but also use extended criteria that are broader than the 1951 Convention. For these reasons, in comparing government and UNHCR recognition rates, RSDWatch has used the total protection rate, including both Convention and complimentary statuses. In other words, RSDWatch has looked in practical terms at the percentage of asylum-seekers who actually get some form of protection.

The simplest comparison to make is to look at overall recognition rates for all 639,074 individual RSD cases decided in 2007. UNHCR offices offered protection to 80 percent of the applications they decided. Meanwhile, governments RSD systems posted a recognition rate of only 29 percent overall.

But overall recognition rates can be deceiving since different types of asylum-seekers arrive in different counties, and some groups of asylum seekers generally have stronger refugee claims that others. One reason why UNHCR’s overall recognition rate is so much higher than governments is that the nationalities that apply to UNHCR offices are more likely to have strong claims than many of the nationalities that apply to governments. In other words, recognition rate comparisons can be meaningful only if one compares similar cases to each other.

When analyzed this way, UNHCR appears relatively strict compared to governments with strong asylum systems. For example, Canada’s government-run RSD system – often considered one of the best by refugee advocates – posted a recognition rate of 52 percent in 2007. This appears much lower than UNHCR’s overall rate, but only because Canada dealt with many asylum claims by Mexicans, who as a group usually have weak refugee claims. When the two systems are compared nationality by nationality, UNHCR appears more restrictive than Canada, and sometimes much more restrictive.

CANADA v. UNHCR RECOGNITION RATES IN 2007 Canadian Rec Rate UNHCR Rec Rate
OVERALL: 52% 79%
Afghans 81% 46%
Chad 69% 44%
DR Congo 68% 44%
Eritrea 94% 73%
Ethiopia 84% 56%
Iran 84% 91%
Pakistan 57% 10%
Rwanda 80% 93%
Somalia 93% 93%
Sri Lanka 92% 84%

Better than governments – but which governments?

Some government-run RSD systems rarely recognize any refugee applications. Greece granted asylum to only eight out of 20,692 applicants in 2007, for instance. The governments of Cyprus, Israel, Malawi and Senegal gave protection to fewer than 10 percent of the refugee applications they considered in 2007.  Several other European governments recognized less than 20 percent of refugees claims in 2007.

When recognition rates are compared nationality by nationality, UNHCR offices are nearly always more likely to accept refugee claims than these highly restrictive asylum systems. While usually exceeded by Canada, UNHCR was usually on the upper end of the recognition rate rankings, roughly on par with or above the United States, Italy, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway.

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