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More on UNHCR’s RSD timeline

January 31, 2013

Thanks to reader Rickard Olseke, who sent a pointed response to my post arguing that UNHCR should not be criticized for taking a long time to decide RSD cases. He says:

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.

He is absolutely right about UNHCR’s Procedural Standards (see Rule 4.5). This is quite unfortunate, because we want UNHCR to actually implement its standards. In this case UNHCR has effectively given itself an unfunded mandate, one which I doubt many field offices have ever complied with consistently. That undermines the entire idea of having standards. And there is a real danger of UNHCR managers adopting a factory mentality, whereby the the effectiveness of refugee status determination is measured by the quantity of cases processed.

My suggestion is to amend Rule 4.5. Definitely do not expect a decision in a month. I would set a very modest outer limit, if any. And I would urge refugee rights advocates to not pressure UNHCR about going faster, except in particularly compelling circumstances. If we want to set a deadline – and there probably is good reason to set an outer limit – I would first think about establishing a rule firmly regulating the number of cases eligibility officers can be asked to process in a given period of time. Once that is established, the timeline can be set depending on the number of staff and number of applicants in a particular office.

To be clear, when something is a matter of right — the right to counsel, reasoned decisions, disclosure of evidence, etc. — then it doesn’t matter if field offices resist. Due process must be imposed. But timelines are something different, because there is nothing sacred in law about a 30 day or 60 day timeline. It is definitely better if the process moves faster. But not at the cost of fairness.


  1. Neha Bhat permalink
    January 31, 2013 11:13 pm

    i think it also needs to be considered that these figures arrived at are averages – not every individual applicant waits 315 days- some fortunately wait less (even having their interviews within the prescribed RSD procedural standards) and some unfortunately wait 315 and perhaps, some even longer. the “315 days” for e.g. is a total of waiting period for individual candidate divided by the total number of candidates. while surely there is nothing which justifies unending (and in many cases unexplained) delay- there are times, especially in cases where appeals are concerned that the applicants rejected may not necessarily return to file their appeals with the UNHCR within the 30 day window prescribed by the procedural standards. in such cases, when they eventually return, UNHCR may choose to ‘re-activate’ the file when the applicant returns and process the appeal. so, if an applicant is registered and rejected say in 1999, but eventually files an appeal only in 2004 (due to whichever reason possible) and gets eventually decided in 2005, the avg. waiting time for appeals will necessarily be longer as the system will calculate the time taken to decide an appeal is from the day the application is first filed i.e. 1999 without actually considering that between 1999-2005, the applicant was not necessarily “active” as a ‘person of concern’. this also explains in part the issue about mismatch between First Instance rejections issues and appeals filed that was raised in your post of Jan 2, 2013- there are applicants who do not necessarily adhere to the UNHCR appeal window period and do file their applications later and UNHCR does indeed accept them.

  2. David Rhys Jones permalink
    February 1, 2013 8:52 am

    The trick, surely, is to find a balance between a factory and a warehouse? All decisions should be made in a timely fashion and 30 – 60 days may be a useful target to aspire to, but other cases will take longer and some much longer where more time to get the right decision is required. However, where cases are dealt with outside the usual time frame there needs to be an active review process. Otherwise, hard cases will be pushed to one side in favour or ‘quick wins.’ This then comes down to quantitative and qualitative reporting to ensure that the right decisions were made based on the best evidence at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise, throughput becomes the sole criterion for measuring performance.

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