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UNHCR recognition rates rise in the wake of new standards

July 24, 2008

A new analysis by RSDWatch has found that UNHCR recognition rates in refugee status determination have risen substantially over the last three years, providing concrete evidence that new standards and training are having a widespread effect on the way UNHCR field offices handle refugee status determination cases.

In human terms, the increased recognition rates meant that thousands of refugees received protection last year who might have been rejected in the years before UNHCR committed itself to RSD reform. UNHCR rejected 9883 refugee claims in 2007, compared to 23,030 in 1999.

RSDWatch found that the worldwide increase in RSD recognition rates reflected a consistent trend linked to key changes in UNHCR’s global RSD policies. The recognition rates began to increase in 2003, jumped again in 2005, and has been consistently above the 75 percent mark since then.

1999-2002 46 percent
2003-2004 57 percent
2005-2007 81 percent

UNHCR does not apply any quotas in RSD, and there is no numerical benchmark for a strong RSD system. UNHCR normally reports recognition rates only country-by country, and does not report its own global recognition rate. The rates often vary considerably from year to year in particular countries because they are affected by both policy changes and changes in the types of refugee applications received. Even global recognition rates can be skewed by a single large UNHCR operation, as occurred in the 1990s when UNHCR engaged in massive RSD operations in the Sudan and in the former Yugoslavia.

Although only a rough measure, the consistency of UNHCR’s improved recognition rate across diverse RSD operations suggest indicate that something substantial has changed in how UNHCR decides refugee claims. Of the twelve largest UNHCR RSD operations in 2007, a list including offices spread across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, eight posted recognition rates of at least 70 percent. The three largest offices were Kenya (71 percent recognition rate), Malaysia (92 percent) and Turkey (95 percent).

The impact of RSD reform on real refugees appears most dramatic in the declining number of asylum-seekers who are rejected by UNHCR field offices through RSD procedures each year. Before 2003, UNHCR regularly turned away more than 20,000 asylum-seekers around the world each year. This figure has been cut in half even as the number of people applying to UNHCR RSD systems has grown.

UNHCR issued new procedural standards for its RSD operations in November 2003. They were initially circulated internally to field offices, but were later published in September 2005. UNHCR has also initiated new training programs for its RSD staff, and has increasingly promoted legal aid in its own RSD procedures. Most of the largest UNHCR RSD operations have now committed themselves to providing individualized reasons for rejection, though they are not all doing so yet.

In 2005, NGOs cautiously welcomed the new procedural standards, but have also criticized UNHCR for not revising policies that lead to the withholding of interview transcripts and other evidence from asylum-seekers. It was not previously clear how much impact the UNHCR reforms were having on the ground.

NGOs surveyed annually by RSDWatch in the past had reported inconsistent progress toward reform, and have expressed concern that UNHCR offices still reject refugees with strong claims. Statistical trends do not directly negate these concerns, but they add weight to UNHCR claims that it has made significant reforms, and also to NGO arguments that improving RSD procedures leads to tangible results for refugees.

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