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12 NGOs seek ‘incremental steps’ from UNHCR on evidence disclosure

October 15, 2008

Twelve refugee rights organizations wrote to UNHCR at the end of September with a proposal to break a stalemate over UNHCR policies restricting disclosure of evidence to asylum-seekers in mandate status determination procedures.

UNHCR policy prohibits providing refugee applicants with copies of their own interview transcripts, and restricts disclosure of third-party evidence that might also be considered in some RSD cases. This conflicts with UNHCR’s advice to governments, which calls for equality of access to evidence for asylum-seekers, except in narrowly defined cases. Earlier this year UNHCR rebuffed a proposal from Asylum Access (RSDWatch’s parent organization) to apply this principle to its own RSD procedures.

UNHCR considers applicant interview transcripts “confidential,” even from the person concerned.

In the letter, the organizations proposed an alternative “progressive way forward on this issue so that it does not overshadow the substantial improvements that UNHCR has made elsewhere.”

They proposed that UNHCR expand the pilot project in Lebanon that gives advocates from Frontiers Association access to the files, including interview transcripts, of asylum-seekers to whom they provide legal aid. Such a pilot project would assist only the minority of asylum-seekers who have access to legal aid from an organization with a relationship with UNHCR.

They also proposed that Geneva provide guidance to field offices on the overlapping and somewhat confusing rules governing disclosure of third party evidence. These rules may technically allow more disclosure than often occurs, but are often understood as calling for evidence withholding.

At the same time, the NGOs made clear that their preference is for UNHCR to revise its entire evidence disclose policy, and criticized the current policy:

We are concerned that current UNHCR practices increase risks of errant rejection of refugee claims by UNHCR offices, and set a poor example for governments that are establishing their own RSD systems. …

Just as UNHCR has advised governments, we believe that limitations on disclosure of evidence limit applicants’ opportunities to correct factual errors, and we have seen cases where this has led to errant rejections of valid refugee claims. UNHCR’s current policy also creates the appearance of non-transparency, which erodes confidence in UNHCR RSD procedures, and makes it difficult for asylum-seekers and their legal aid advocates to mount effective appeals or offer UNHCR constructive feedback on the quality of RSD decisions.

The 12 organization were:

Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance

Amnesty International

Asylum Access

Frontiers Association

Helsinki Citizens Assembly (Turkey) (Refugee Advocacy and Support Program)

Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre

International Refugee Rights Initiative

Jesuit Refugee Service

Refugee Consortium Kenya

Refugee Law Project

WARIPNET: West African Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Network

US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

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