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Large UNHCR RSD operations will give detailed written reasons for rejection to asylum-seekers denied protection

September 29, 2008

UNHCR has confirmed to RSDWatch’s parent organization Asylum Access that 11 of its 15 largest  refugee status determination operations will for the first time provide asylum-seekers who are denied protection detailed letters explaining why they were rejected. The reform addresses one of the strongest longstanding criticisms of the fairness of UNHCR’s RSD procedures. Previously,  asylum-seekers turned away by UNHCR  were normally not given any explanation.

UNHCR conduct RSD in dozens of countries, but most of the applications are concentrated in around a dozen field offices.  As a result, the reform at 11 large offices will improve procedures for more than 90 percent of asylum-seekers whose fates are determined by UNHCR.

Some of the 11 field offices are already using a new rejection letter template, which UNHCR revised over the past year based on input from refugee rights organization. The template requires UNHCR staff to identify specific categorical reasons for rejection, and then asks them to give a brief explanation as to why it applies to the individual.  Other offices have committed to adopting the template soon.

Specific individualized information is essential for rejected asylum-seekers to understand why UNHCR concluded they are not refugees under international law, and to consider whether to appeal the decision. RSDWatch has reviewed a small number of rejection letters issued under the program. One letter was vague and gave little individual information, but others have been lengthy, detailed and provided significant information about the basis for the decision.

Before the announcement, refugee advocates had expressed concerns that UNHCR had not set firm deadlines for specific reforms, and that procedures remained unfair years after UNHCR had promised ambitions reform. UNHCR has now gone substantial distance in addressing two core gaps in its RSD procedures — disclosure of reasons for rejection, and recognition that asylum-seekers have a right to receive legal assistance.

[Asylum Access welcomed the reforms with a press release, noting that UNHCR’s recognition rate in RSD has improved dramatically since the agency committed itself to reform.]

At the same time, UNHCR as to date refused to revise policies restricting disclosure of evidence to asylum-seekers, in conflict with its own advice to governments. Asylum Access recently criticized UNHCR for these policies and recommended specific revisions, and other NGOs have made similar calls. UNHCR also does not provide for a fully independent appeal system for rejected asylum-seekers, but has signaled interest in developing plans to do so.

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