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UNHCR agrees to “consider” evidence disclosure experiments

December 28, 2008

Responding to a coalition of refugee rights groups, UNHCR’s Department of International Protection Services (DIPS) agreed this month to give field offices more guidance on the kind of third party evidence  they can disclose to asylum-seekers, and to “consider” expanding the pilot projects in Beirut and Ankara that allow certain legal representatives to view their client’s files.

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. But an exceptional program in Beirut provides the Lebanese refugee rights group Frontiers Association access to the files, including interview transcripts, or asylum-seekers to whom they provide legal aid. In Ankara, Helsinki Citizens Assembly is able to review the internal assessments of its refugee clients’ cases.

In September, 12 organizations asked UNHCR to expand these pilot projects as an incremental way to overcome a stalemate over UNHCR’s evidence withholding policies, which conflict with established norms of due process and UNHCR’s own advice to governments.

In a reply letter, DIPS Director George Okoth-Obbo said that UNHCR’s rules reflect “the difficulty in ensuring the confidentiality of these documents in the range of contexts in which UNHCR conducts RSD,” but agreed on the need to “balance” concerns for due process and fairness.

Okoth-Obbo praised the Beirut and Lebanon pilot projects as “constructive, and have had a positive impact” on the quality of UNHCR RSD decision-making. “We can consider other operations in which similar collaboration could be feasible,” he said. Okoth-Obbo tied the disclosure pilots to a willingness of legal aid organizations to provide feedback to UNHCR about their assessment quality.

He also promised to issue guidance to field office to ensure they do not restrict disclosure more than required.

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