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In US, legal aid access and access to asylum rising together

January 11, 2011

An analysis of recent data indicates that recognition rates of asylum-seekers applying for protection in the United States have risen substantially over recent years, along with the availability of legal aid.

The report by Syracuse University found that in the first nine months of 2010 only 50 percent of asylum applications in the US were rejected, an all-time low. In 1986, 89 percent were rejected.

The report concluded, “The growing success of asylum seekers is partly attributable to increases in the proportion who obtain legal representation.” In 1986, only about half of asylum-seekers were represented by a lawyer. But today the figure is above 90 percent.

Correlation does not prove causation, but this finding is consistent with other studies that have found that asylum-seekers who have access to even basic legal aid succeed in finding protection at much higher rates than those who do not. This has been found to be true of UNHCR RSD, as well as government-run systems like the US.

Other improvements are also likely to improve recognition rates. Since the mid-1980s there have been substantial developments in legal standards, procedures and training in asylum cases. In UNHCR, where only a minority of applicants have legal aid, recognition rates have risen significantly since the advent of stronger due process standards. This suggest that across the board improvements in RSD procedures, including but not limited to legal aid, are essential.

While the overall trends were positive, the Syracuse report also found continuing concern about wide inconsistencies in adjudication of asylum cases by different courts and judges in the US. This kind of inconsistency may also be a concern in UNHCR RSD. Available data indicate that there are gaps in how different UNHCR offices handle superficially similar groups of applicants, but it is difficult to pin down the reason or extent of the inconsistency because the UN publishes mush less statistical data about its RSD adjudications than the US Government.

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