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ANALYSIS: The resource question in UNHCR RSD

May 17, 2010

CORRECTED: January 14, 2013 (Correcting an error in the United States asylum caseload, where in a previous version the figures errantly included the Executive Office for Immigration Review.)

  • UNHCR has fewer resources to decide refugee cases than the wealthiest asylum states.
  • UNHCR has more RSD resources than some governments in the global south.
  • Limited resources do not explain UNHCR’s resistance to disclosure of evidence.

Perhaps the most common explanation for gaps in UNHCR’s refugee status determination system is that UNHCR does not have as many resources as governments, and thus cannot meet the same standards. Since 2003, UNHCR has set for itself lower due process standards than it promotes for governments, because of “the particular constraints and challenges under which UNHCR must conduct RSD.”

Are UNHCR’s RSD resources really so constrained, and if so, what should this mean for due process?

Meager resources compared to some governments

The most common claim is that UNHCR has a lower staff-to-application ratio than the asylum systems run by North American and European governments.

In any given year, UNHCR needs to plan on handling around 75,000 RSD applications, most of them in 15 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. To do this, it has 300 staff, only around half of whom are full time. This means, roughly, that there are 333 RSD applications each year for every full time RSD staff position at UNHCR.

By comparison, according a 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, the United States employed 312 asylum officers and supervisors. They handled an average of 38,000 cases per year at various stages of asylum and refugee procedures. This means that the average annual caseload for American asylum officers was nearly two-thirds lighter than for their UNHCR counterparts.

If anything, this rough index probably underestimates the real resource disparity. US asylum officers are just one part of a larger American asylum system. Some applications and appeals are handled by Immigration Courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals and the federal courts, while UNHCR’s RSD staff handle both first instance and appeal applications. Even if staff ratios were superficially equal, UNHCR’s staff work in considerably tougher physical environments than an average American government office, with less support staff and far more modest infrastructure.

Ample resources compared to other governments

While UNHCR’s resources pale in comparison to the US (and probably others), it’s worth asking why the wealthiest asylum systems of North America and Europe should be the point of reference. UNHCR’s RSD activities are concentrated in the global south, where government-run RSD systems also lack the resources of North America and Western Europe.

In Ecuador, a government staff of roughly 15 interviewers and adjudicators cope with making more than 11,000 RSD decisions per year.

In South Africa in 2008 there were roughly 350 asylum applications for every RSD officer employed by the government, without even counting the 111,968 asylum claims made by Zimbabweans (who did not generally go through individual RSD).

These staffing ratios are rough measures only. In nearly all RSD systems some kinds of applications generate more work than others, especially when decision-making for certain groups is streamlined. Also, it is hard to find uniform data about RSD staffing levels. Since so many people are involved in the RSD process in some way, from registration to filing to interpretation, there are likely differences in how systems count the number of RSD staff they employ.

Still, this kind of data provides the best available objective basis for comparing the resources of different RSD systems. And the main thing they show is that while UNHCR does have relatively few RSD resources compared to some governments, other government RSD officers might look at UNHCR’s staffing levels with envy.

Also, despite the hardships under which its staff work, UNHCR has some special resources simply because it is UNHCR. UNHCR has six decades of institutional knowledge about refugee law and is probably the world’s largest employer of refugee policy specialists. UNHCR operates one of the best collections of country of origin information (Refworld). A government setting up its own RSD system would have to develop this expertise on its own.

UNHCR’s office in Cairo may be modest relative to a US asylum office. But compared to the government-run reception center in Cape Town, UNHCR-Cairo is better organized and generally a much safer space for refugees.

Resource limitations v. reform?

Limited resources do not explain UNHCR’s reluctance to disclose evidence to asylum-seekers and the reluctance of some field offices to provide written reasons for rejection. If an asylum-seeker asks for a copy of her own RSD interview transcript, the resources required would include only the staff time required to print a document that UNHCR produces anyway. There may be other reasons why UNHCR does not want to let applicants see their own transcripts, but resources don’t explain it.

Reasons for rejection present a more complicated scenario. UNHCR has been expanding the provision of reasons for rejection through a pilot project that unquestionably adds work for UNHCR staff. But this is because of the way UNHCR has chosen to address the problem. UNHCR always produces an internal assessment of RSD applications, and this assessment is the real vehicle for the decision. But UNHCR has decided for the pilot project to ask offices to produce a second document explaining the rejection on a specialized form that can be given to applicants. By requiring a second form, UNHCR is creating extra work for itself when it could simply give applicants a copy of the actual case assessment.

A challenge, and an opportunity to lead

Fair and effective refugee status determination does not come free. You need a decision-maker who is highly skilled at interviewing vulnerable people from other countries, and analyzing cases in light of a fairly complicated set of legal standards. You need a physical space that ensures both privacy and dignity. You need trained and supervised interpreters. And you need a wide range of other people and facilities to receive applicants, prioritize them by urgency, and handle the logistics of appointments and scheduling.

For both the Office of the High Commissioner and its donors, the resource question is a test of commitment to a “core protection function,” as UNHCR has called RSD. Even without increasing the number of full time positions, UNHCR’s resources could be enhanced by providing RSD staff a more promising career path. Right now, only about one in six UNHCR RSD staff are on regular UN contracts. A significant number of the UNHCR staff who deal with RSD cases are quite junior, either Junior Professional Officers (JPOs) or UN Volunteers.

If UNHCR officials use resource limitations as a justification to compromise on fairness, they risk sending the message that fair RSD is only for wealthy asylum states. But if UNHCR brings its RSD operations up to minimum standards, then it will have a ready model of how to conduct RSD fairly without the resources of Europe and North America.

One Comment
  1. Alex O permalink
    May 17, 2010 2:38 pm

    333 cases per staff member; forgive me but one RSD per day is far from excessive. What is missing from HCR is institutional will, transparency and accountability…should HCR management address these basics (the same basic standards we expect from any other public body) and I imagine HCR will find a very receptive audience to address their lack of resources.

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