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NGOs propose clarifications on third-party evidence

September 24, 2009

A coalition of refugee rights organizations has submitted recommendations to UNHCR to clarify its rules on third party evidence disclosure in its RSD procedures.

UNHCR policy prohibits providing refugee applicants with copies of their own interview transcripts. It also restricts disclosure of third-party evidence that might also be considered in some RSD cases, but the overlapping rules appear to allow for more disclosure than often occurs.

UNHCR’s evidence withholding policies have been under fire by organizations, but the agency as stood by them as a “confidentiality” measure. At the end of 2008 UNHCR agreed to consider expanding pilot projects from Beirut and Ankara that allow legal aid organizations to access more of the evidence in their clients files, but  nine months into 2009 no new field offices have done so. UNHCR also agreed to clarify the third party evidence rules, but then asked NGOs to provide input on the guidance they want to see.

Interview transcripts are typically the most important piece of evidence in most RSD cases, but are also subject to an explicit withholding policy by UNHCR. NGOs hoped to make more immediate progress on third  party evidence because UNHCR’s policy appears on paper to allow more disclosure if the request if for a “legitimate purpose.” But the policy does not define what this means, and also leaves vague the exceptions that can justify withholding evidence.

The NGOs asked UNHCR to advise its field offices that “a desire to understand, clarify or rebut evidence under consideration or that was considered in one’s own refugee status determination application to be a legitimate purpose for disclosure.” The asked that exceptions made for UNHCR staff security be limited to limited to cases “where there are specific grounds for concluding that disclosure of particular information would lead to a well-founded risk of actual violence.”

The NGOs also asked UNHCR to codify in field instructions some of the assurances that had been previously provided by the Department of International Protection Services in official letters that UNHCR offices should not rely extensively on third party evidence to which applicants have little opportunity to respond.

To read the full recommendations, click here.

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