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Refugee Status Removed After a Routine Interview? UNHCR, Please Explain.

October 23, 2014

In an interview with The Daily Star newspaper, UNHCR’s Representative to Lebanon Ninette Kelley said that UNHCR has “removed” refugee status from 68,000 Syrians over the past five months.

According to the article, some of these cases involve people who have failed to contact the UNHCR office after a period of time, which not not especially objectionable. But UNHCR also removed refugee status from some people because they were “deemed not to be in need of protection any longer, after a routine interview conducted annually prior to renewing refugee documents,” according to the newspaper.

The article includes a long quote from Kelley purporting to explain this, but it raises as many questions as it answers. Here is the full quote:

“We have looked at those names and tried to determine what number of those names, because there are a lot of names, also matches our database, and then we have called people in … to interview them and find out the reasons for their going back. And we have deregistered people for whom their going back to Syria has shown that they aren’t in need of international protection or assistance, and that’s something that we have done willingly with the government, recognizing that refugee status is for persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution and are fleeing civil unrest inside Syria.”

It would be productive for UNHCR to issue a statement clarifying the procedures it uses to “deregister” refugees. For a person who remains in contact with UNHCR, there are really only three ways for refugee status to be ended legitimately. None of them are routine.

One is cancellation, which is used when a person is found to have committed fraud in applying for refugee status. Such an allegation obviously requires giving the accused person the right to defend himself.

Another is cessation. There are several potential grounds for cessation, but the one that might be applicable to the situation Kelley is describing is where a refugee “has voluntarily re-established himself in the country which he left.” But this is not a legally simple matter, because it requires evidence that a person has “re-established himself,” not merely re-entered the country. Brief visits to collect assets or to bring aid to family members might not meet this test.

The final legitimate means of refugee de-registration is full fledged individualized refugee status determination. This may be called for if UNHCR wants to end refugee status for someone who was recognized presumptively on a prima facie basis. In this situation, the person has never actually had a full chance to have her refugee claim adjudicated, and has a right to have that opportunity before refugee recognition is stripped away.

All of this is to say that there are legitimate reasons why UNHCR may deregister a refugee, but all of them would be complicated, and would require a full range of procedural safeguards, starting with full notice of what is at issue and what is at stake, and the chance to prepare a response. It is difficult to imagine that the entire procedure could be conducted fairly in a single interview where the person thinks he is going to the UNHCR office simply to renew documents, which is what the article suggests is happening.

The Daily Star report raises alarm bells because historically there has been a problem with UNHCR offices being far too casual in taking refugee status away from people. Years ago, I had several clients who had been summoned to a UNHCR office because they were told UNHCR needed to collect some routine information, and they walked out of the office having had their blue cards seized. I would like to think that UNHCR no longer does that sort of thing.

I realize that Kelley was trying to summarize a complicated situation for the media, and so it is possible that UNHCR is doing all of this properly. But it is also clear from the article that Kelley is highly sensitive to pressure from the Lebanese Government, which has partially closed its borders to new Syrian arrivals. (Depending on how it is administered with asylum-seekers, the border closure may be illegal under international law, but it is politically more complicated for UNHCR because Lebanon has undeniably borne an absurdly disproportionate burden in terms of hosting Syrian refugees.)

This environment certainly makes it plausible that UNHCR feels some pressure to trim its registration rolls. Kelley’s statement that UNHCR is doing this “willingly with the government” could give refugees reason to worry about whether their cases will be adjudicated fairly. Given that there is no judicial review available to these people, it would be beneficial for UNHCR to explain publicly the procedures that it has used in these cases and how it is protecting the refugees’ due process rights.

UPDATE: Concerns that the Lebanese government is pressuring UNHCR to turn refugees away seem to be explicitly confirmed here.

One Comment
  1. Barbara Harrell-Bond permalink
    October 24, 2014 12:39 pm


    Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond 298 Banbury Road, Flat 2 Oxford OX2 7ED, UK Phones: +44 (0)1865 424 697; (0)7906 203368 Web Site: Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter: Skype: Barbara.Harrellbond

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