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Vagueness and credibility in UNHCR rejection letters

February 17, 2011

One of the most important reforms UNHCR has undertaken in its refugee status determination procedures is the expansion of providing reasons for rejection to asylum-seekers. Yet ensuring that the rejection letters are clear and adequately informative is likely to be a continuing struggle.

RSDWatch has seen a number of rejection letters issued by UNHCR offices in recent years. We have not seen enough of the new UNHCR rejection letters to constitute a representative survey, but we can describe some recurring issues. Some letters that we have seen are relatively specific and individualized, while others are quite general or contain circular reasoning. We must obscure key details about the letters that we have seen for the sake of anonymity.

What UNHCR offices have begun to provide to rejected asylum-seekers is not the ‘real’ decision, but rather a summary prepared after the decision to reject an application has been made. UNHCR offices prepare longer internal assessments of RSD claims but do not usually provide these to rejected applicants. We do not know how much useful information might end up withheld through this process.

Doubts about credibility feature prominently in many UNHCR RSD rejections, as is common in many RSD system. But in letters we reviewed UNHCR was not always clear about the reason for deciding not to believe an applicant. RSDWatch has seen letters from UNHCR offices stating without explanation that key elements of a refugee claim are “not credible,” without saying why. This is essentially circular reasoning, declaring an application to be invalid because it lacks validity.

Some letters do provide clearer explanations, but typically still leave questions about the decision. In the most specific UNHCR rejection letters that we have seen, UNHCR offices make reference to specific subject matters about which an applicant was allegedly vague or contradictory. But in the letters we have seen UNHCR did not actually illustrate or show the vagueness or contradictions by quoting from the RSD interview transcript, so it is difficult to know if UNHCR’s conclusion was reasonable.

In one case, UNHCR asserted that the applicant had contradicted him/herself about a key fact. In this case, and against normal UNHCR policy, legal advisors were able to obtain a copy of the interview transcript and could not find an actual contradiction.

In another case, UNHCR said that it could find no independent confirmation that an act of violence occurred at the time and place the asylum-seeker claimed. The rejection letter asserted that the applicant had failed to describe the event in detail. It also said the applicant had not given very much detail about an arrest and detention. But the rejection letter did not provide quotations from the interview transcript setting out exactly what the applicant was asked about these subjects, nor how s/he replied.

Some rejections appeared to be based on assumptions made by decision-makers. In one letter, UNHCR asserted that it is implausible that security forces would be interested in the applicant after releasing him/her from prison.  The letter gave no evidence showing how UNHCR can be sure of this.

In another case, UNHCR said that it rejected the applicant because his/her claims to have come from a particular place of origin were not credible. The only explanation given was that the applicant did not know the geography of the area and did not know certain information about his/her ethnicity. UNHCR did not specify the information that the applicant should have known, nor how UNHCR could be sure that a credible applicant would know the information.

The examples that RSDWatch has been able to review indicate several pitfalls in UNHCR’s current procedures.

  • First, when an applicant receives a rejection letter that is too general, it is impossible to know whether the reasoning of the decision was inadequate, or whether it is merely an inadequate summary. In some of these cases, there may be a more cogent explanation for the decision that is kept in UNHCR’s files and unavailable to the person concerned. It may be necessary for UNHCR to allow applicant to object to vagueness in rejection letters, and to obtain more specific information before deciding whether to appeal the decision.
  • Second, in credibility-based rejections even the best and most specific of the letters that we have seen would fail to give an applicant a clear understanding of the decision because they do not actually show that the applicant’s testimony was flawed. The letters might be specific enough if UNHCR also disclosed the interview transcript or at least quoted from it at length. Unfortunately, UNHCR policy prohibits disclosure of interview transcripts to applicants. This leaves asylum-seekers in a quandary. If the applicant believes that s/he has given a direct  answer to the questions that were asked, and UNHCR says, “you gave insufficient detail,” it is not clear what the applicant could say to effectively appeal. It is also not clear how an outsider reading the letters can have confidence that UNHCR’s decision is reliable.
  • Third, we have seen multiple letters where UNHCR asserts that publicly available country of origin information (COI) fails to support a refugee claim. But we have not seen UNHCR give citations or quotations from the COI on which it relies. This again leaves an applicant who wants to appeal facing a challenge. S/he can submit COI that supports his or her claim, but has no idea if UNHCR has already seen the same document and decided to interpret it differently, or if UNHCR relied on a different source for some unknown reason.

Providing reasoned rejection letters is still optional for UNHCR field offices, a gap between what UNHCR asks of governments and the standards it sets for itself.

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