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Don’t blame UNHCR for being slow

January 22, 2013

coloring-hourglassIn a September report about refugee protection in Thailand, Human Rights Watch levels an ill-considered attack on UNHCR’s refugee status determination procedures for being slow:

The most common complaint regarding UNHCR among urban refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok is the long waiting periods for UNHCR Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interviews and for UNHCR to report back the results of the interviews, and a similarly slow appeals process. Asylum seekers consistently say that the process is delayed, that communication by and from the office is very poor, and that they remain extremely vulnerable while waiting for UNHCR to make and report decisions on their cases. In mid-2012, the average waiting time for the first-instance RSD interview with UNHCR was 112 days, and another 203 days to receive the decision for that interview. Average appeals took another 113 days for the interview (for those who were interviewed) and 236 days for a decision.

Let’s focus first on just the waiting time for RSD. If I were a refugee in Bangkok, I would find these waits agonizing. And it’s not just in Bangkok. Although the timelines will vary from office to office, one will hear similar complaints from asylum-seekers nearly everywhere UNHCR conducts RSD.

But there is a difference between empathizing with the legitimate frustrations of asylum-seekers and actually criticizing UNHCR over the waiting time.

Consider this: The average waiting time for a first instance decision at UNHCR-Bangkok is 315 days (112 days waiting for the interview + another 203 days for a decision). By comparison, at the US Asylum Office (which operates a non-adversarial adjudication system in some ways similar to UNHCR’s), the goal is to produce decisions in about 100 days.

So UNHCR is about a third as fast as the U.S. But it turns out that UNHCR has about a third as many RSD staff globally as the US Asylum Office (in terms of number of staff per applicant). In terms of pace, UNHCR is probably performing about as well as one should expect given its resources. If anyone wants them to go faster, they will need more staff.

But do we really want UNHCR to focus on speed in RSD anyway? Interviewing a scared asylum-seeker from a foreign country in a foreign language, collecting all available evidence about her situation, and then applying a complicated legal definition are not processes that are meant to be done in a rush. Speed is likely to come at the cost of fairness and reliability, which in RSD means a higher risk of someone in danger of persecution being denied protection.

Waiting for an RSD decision is going to be agonizing for asylum-seekers, just as waiting for any high stakes decision in life is agonizing. I always told my clients that it is better to get a positive decision late than a negative one early, and I think that remains good advice.

It’s clear in the Human Rights Watch report that the real problem in Thailand is that refugees have no protection while they wait for an RSD decision, and not much afterward either, since the Thai police do not respect UNHCR documents. That is a huge problem, but it cannot be fixed by rushing the RSD process.

A far more valid criticism in the HRW report is that UNHCR does not communicate very well with asylum-seekers during this process. Most urgently, HRW reports that UNHCR-Thailand often fails to intervene – and sometimes fails to even pick up the phone – when asylum-seekers facing security problems ask for help.

At a more mundane level, UNHCR does not have an accessible electronic case monitoring system by which anxious asylum-seekers can check on the status of their applications, or to make sure that documents have been received. This adds to refugees’ palpable feeling of simply being lost in an inaccessible bureaucracy, and takes a serious toll on their mental health. I worry that UNHCR staff may not always appreciate or understand the anxiety of the applicants waiting outside their offices.

But I would not want UNHCR to go any faster. In fact, take your time. Get it right.

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One Comment
  1. January 29, 2013 3:12 pm

    Indeed, refugee status determination should not be rushed; fairness and reliability must never be compromised. But a waiting time of 315 days for a first instance decision? That is surely not a sign of a well functioning procedure. According to UNHCR’s own procedural standards, a decision should normally be issued “within one month following the RSD interview” or, in cases raising “complex issues”, within two months.

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