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What is UNHCR RSD?

Refugee status determination (RSD) is the doorway to the protection and assistance that the international community provides to refugees.  In dozens of countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acts as the gatekeeper.

UNHCR does this by determining whether an individual asylum-seeker (and in some cases, an entire family) meets the international legal definition of a refugee. In this role, the UN’s refugee agency effectively decides among asylum-seekers who can be saved from deportation and in some cases released from detention, who can get humanitarian assistance, and often who can apply to resettle to third countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and some states in the European Union. In practical terms, UNHCR RSD is a cornerstone of refugee policy in much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

In 2013, UNHCR received more than one in five of all RSD applications filed world wide, making it the largest refugee status determination system in the world. In previous years, UNHCR had been second to South Africa, but it has consistently been one of the large RSD decision-makers year after year. (For more information, click on Statistics in our word cloud.)

UNHCR has been doing this work for decades, nearly since its founding in the early 1950s. The official history of UNHCR RSD can be traced to a November 1951 memorandum by the High Commissioner. But it was largely ignored until the late 1990s when lawyers and human rights organizations began to take more notice.

Updated Sept 2, 2014

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