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Tales of a Palestinian in Bangkok: The Tragedies of the Refugees of the Month System

December 2, 2013

While international attention tends to focus on the countries where the greatest number of refugees are found, some individuals find their way to far off places through a mixture of individual initiative, happenstance, airline routing and visa rules. Asylum Access’ Anna Chen has a great post about Ali, a Palestinian refugee who  fled the Syrian civil war all the way to Thailand.

When war broke out between the rebels and the military, Palestinians were forced to flee alongside Syrians. But unlike their Syrian neighbors, travel was difficult because most Palestinian refugees did not have a passport but a travel document that Ali tells us is recognized by few governments. With most embassies closed, Ali says Malaysia and Thailand were among the few that remained open who were able to provide visas.

Because of stories like this, cities like Bangkok often host a smattering of refugees from as far away as West Africa. They are highly visible and yet easily forgotten because they are exceptional. If you walk into a meeting with humanitarian officials of a donor government and say you want to talk about refugees in Thailand, the officials will assume you mean Burmese who live in camps in the north.

This can work to the advantage of a few refugees, if  – and this is a big if – the exceptional urban refugees from far away get an inside track to resettlement while the larger group is warehoused. But it is usually a problem. With smaller numbers, refugees have fewer social connections of their own from which to find support. They are easily forgotten at planning sessions.

Most glaringly, refugees who don’t fit the high profile patters are typically less attractive to donors, and get treated differently than their immediate neighbors. The Atlantic has a great article about this, focusing on Sudanese in Jordan whose plight gets far less attention – and less assistance – than the influx of Syrians.

Many Sudanese in Jordan wait three months just to get their first appointment with UNHCR. As asylum seekers, they can then wait for years before their refugee status is determined, with no means to work and no aid in the meantime. … Syrians, meanwhile, speed through or skip through this process, receiving refugee status and help immediately because they have been declared prima facie refugees—members of a mass influx from generalized violence for which UNHCR doesn’t need or have the capacity to conduct individual evaluations.

The authors ask: “What makes an asylum seeker from Syria needier than one from Sudan?” It’s a trick question, of course.

Different situations call for different responses, but there’s more to it than that. Donations, and sometimes resettlement programs, follow crises in the news because governments love to announce that they are addressing a high profile catastrophe. But there is less political gain in helping refugees whose plights are less interesting to the media. Given that Syrian refugees are suffering considerably, imagine the plight of those who are not the current refugees of the month.

Rwandan refugee abducted from Uganda, UNHCR disputes Rwandan claims that he was a criminal

November 6, 2013

Here’s a frightening report about a Rwandan refugee, Joel Mutabazi, who was recognized as a refugee by UNHCR and later kidnapped from Kampala and taken back to Rwanda.

Rwandan authorities accuse him of having linked to “genocidal forces,” but UNHCR publicly disputes the allegations. UNHCR’s representative in Uganda was quoted in The Times of London: “Rwandan refugees are one of the highest risk groups among refugee communities in Africa.”

The incident highlights how limited UNHCR’s protection tools often are for refugees who face the most immediate threats to their physical safety. While UNHCR can recognize that someone is in danger, it usually must rely on host governments to provide physical security for refugees. The case also is likely to add continuing fuel about whether Rwandan refugees should be sent home in any circumstances, a debate I have written about previously.

New Training Guide to Credibility Assessment in RSD

October 16, 2013

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has published a cutting edge guide to credibility assessment in refugee cases, called Credibility Assessment in Asylum Procedures. I’m a co-author, so I know this may sound self-serving, but this is now probably the state of the art in capturing best practices in one of the hardest and high stakes challenges in RSD. Doubts about credibility probably lead to more rejections of refugee claims than any other issue, but often have a very thin basis. And if the adjudicator doubts someone who is actually telling the truth, a person in danger of persecution will be put in harms way.

UNHCR consulted extensively on the training manual, which follow close on the heals of UNHCR’s report about credibility assessment in Europe, which is one of the best reports on the subject to date. (And I didn’t co-author that report, so this compliment is not self-serving).

Verdirame and Pobjoy Respond on Urban Refugee Policy

August 29, 2013

Guglielmo Verdirame and Jason Pobjoy have published a thoughtful response to my essay on UNHCR’s urban refugee policy. Please check it out here.  I will be posting a brief reply in the comments section.

Let me say separately that with these and other comments and essays already posted, the new blog has managed to facilitate one of the most lively and constructive online debates on refugee policy that I can recall.

A Gentle Reminder to UNHCR: Deciding Refugee Cases Is Not Just About Efficiency

August 23, 2013

In UNHCR’s review of the implementation of its urban refugee policy, there is a long section about refugee status determination, both by governments and by UNHCR. Almost everything the report says about UNHCR RSD is right. But the report is alarmingly unbalanced.

The problem is not what is said. It’s what is not said. There is nearly nothing about due process. Nearly nothing about making the right decisions, and earning the trust of refugee communities that the RSD process is fair. Nothing about the human consequences if UNHCR gets RSD wrong.

Here is how the report summarizes UNHCR’s concerns:

The survey confirmed a need to strengthen the legal and technical systems of governments who are performing RSD. When UNHCR performs RSD, the principal challenges are again related to sufficient staffing and office space to handle the volume of persons of concern approaching the office.

Notice that when governments conduct RSD, UNHCR is worried about the legal dimensions of RSD. But when UNHCR is the decision-maker, UNHCR is only worried about backlogs and resources.

The report has one general statement that UNHCR “will establish transparent and consistent RSD procedures” and there is a note that some UNHCR offices do not have adequate office facilities to provide a confidential space for interviews. But there are few other specifics about quality or fairness. The bulk of the report is about resources/efficiency, focusing on case management and database technologies. These are entirely legitimate concerns. But they are just part of the picture.

The imbalance stems, it seems, from the fact the the report is really a synthesis of perspectives from UNHCR field offices. And UNHCR managers in the field are understandably under pressure by their heavy case loads and meager resources. As the report describes:

UNHCR offices struggling with backlogs include the following:

Lebanon, India, Malaysia and Indonesia: report difficulty with delays and a backlog of RSD cases.

Egypt: Insufficient staffing and a high turnover rate make it difficult to process RSD for the Sudanese asylum seekers.

Jordan: The RSD and exclusion units have difficulty retaining staff due to “RSD fatigue”, which makes it difficult for the office to clear the exclusion backlog.

Kenya: The RSD unit has difficulty providing first instance and appeal decisions in a timely fashion (the waiting time for first instance decisions is 14 months).

Syria: Applications to reopen appeals have increased exponentially as violence has escalated.

Turkey: An increase in new arrivals since 2010 (Iranians, Iraqis and Somalis) plus the recent influx of Syrians has resulted in long wait periods (15 months until fi rst RSD appointment).

Cameroon: A high number of asylum applications without relevant claims, fraud and frequent no-shows at interview appointments create delays and disturb meaningful scheduling.

Cameroon, India, Thailand and South Africa: Inadequate Country of Origin Information (COI) slows the RSD process.

These are daunting and very real challenges. But here’s the rub. To discuss RSD challenges solely in terms of staffing, backlogs and processing time turns a high stakes, legal adjudication into just another commodity that UNHCR operations managers need to deliver as efficiently as possible.

Take for example the complaint from four offices about inadequate country of origin information. That’s a big problem, because it can lead to the rejection of refugees who are genuinely in danger. But UNHCR seems only concerned that it slows the process down. Is that the message UNHCR wants to send? That speed matters more than getting it right?

Consider this nugget, courtesy of UNHCR-Bangkok.

The pilot practice of writing reasoned notification letters specifying reasons for rejection has also absorbed staff time and slowed RSD in a few countries. The office in Thailand notes that while this is a good practice for transparency, it is time consuming in part because staff encounters difficulties in drafting reasons especially when determination is based on internal policy papers, confidential COI or contradictions found among the accounts of family members.

It is helpful to hear the views of field offices about due process, though it is not very encouraging. It is also not encouraging that UNHCR would publish such views with no commentary or gentle re-direction for its field office, as if what UNHCR-Bangkok said represents an unobjectionable concern. This is especially since UNHCR’s office in Bangkok has been reluctant to implement other due process protections as well, like the right to counsel, and thus does not have a great deal of credibility in claiming to be committed to RSD fairness generally.

For decades, UNHCR has been cutting corners in RSD. No reasons for rejection. Limited appeals. No disclosure of evidence. These shortcuts lessened the workload on UNHCR staff and made the process more efficient, in the same way that removing safety features from car design makes automobiles cheaper — and more dangerous. Now that UNHCR has slowly begun fixing these gaps in fairness there is going to be an increase in work. Good.

RSD must be fair, and fairness takes time. That’s the whole point. Otherwise, we might as well just flip a coin to decide whether a person is a refugee. For an RSD manager to complain about the time it takes to write reasons for decision is like a surgeon complaining that using sanitary precautions before cutting people open is too burdensome. People’s lives are at stake, so taking some time is a small price to pay.

It’s long overdue for UNHCR to pay adequate attention to the resource side of RSD. But to focus only on this will send the message that the ideal UNHCR RSD manager is an efficiency expert rather than someone fair minded, well versed in creating a safe environment, sensitive to the difficulties of interviewing traumatized people from other cultures, meticulous about research, and analytically thorough.

RSD should be fair and efficient. But when you can’t have both, choose fairness.

PDES Report on Strategic Use of Resettlement

August 15, 2013

Quickly – UNHCR PDES is out with a critically important report assessing Strategic Use of Resettlement.  Briefly, strategic use of resettlement is a vague idea – the report notes that there is no common consensus about about what it should mean – that resettlement might be useful to produce benefits in refugee protection for refugees who are not directly being resettled. This means that resettling some refugees should have some benefit for others, possibly because resettlement relieves pressure on a local population, or works as a political inducement to a government.

As the report explains, there is a challenge in that there is little agreement about how these broader benefits for resettlement might be achieved, or what the goals should be. The report also shows how it has been difficult for UNHCR to determine how to engage host governments in countries of first asylum, who should be central to the theory of how strategic resettlement would work. Making the theory work would require coordination between host governments, UNHCR, and multiple resettlement governments (not to mention refugee communities). That is a tall order.

The report points to more challenges and dilemmas that to clear success. I hope that is not discouraging, because strategic resettlement has been one of the more promising ideas to emerge in recent years for improving refugee rights in the global south. I’ve suggested setting up a very ambitious kind of strategic resettlement program as part of a bargain to improve refugee rights in the Egypt; this report shows how difficult that would be in practice right now. But it also shows that we probably are only at the early stages of experimenting with the potential.

Why Are There Still Refugee Camps?

August 12, 2013

I’ve got an essay on UNHCR’s urban refugee policy, on the new Urban Refugees blog. Four years after UNHCR announced its new policy on urban refugees, there have been some new critiques raising doubts about whether UNHCR is really committed to changing its approach. UNHCR has also published its own review of the implementation of the new policy. There are some valid grounds for skepticism, but I remain very enthusiastic about what UNHCR is trying to do. My essay is intended as a critique of the critiques.

Check it out.

Debating Urban Refugees Online

August 10, 2013

A quick plug for the new blog I’ll be posting a longish commentary on the topic of urban refugee policy soon. But it’s generally great to see initiatives to stir up debate about global refugee policy on the Internet.

Revisiting Closed File Limbo: UNHCR needs to separate re-considerations from new claims

August 10, 2013

A number of years ago, Forced Migration Review ran an article that ruffled a few UNHCR feathers in Egypt, called “In Closed File Limbo.” The thrust of article was that UNHCR bore some responsibility for the throngs of failed Sudanese asylum-seekers in Cairo slums who remained in exile in Egypt long after UNHCR had given them a final rejection of their refugee claims. Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR representative in Egypt at the time, was quoted: “Why don’t they move on?”

There are three reasons. The most obvious – and the one Cochetel was thinking of – is that the asylum-seekers didn’t understand or couldn’t accept that they did not meet the criteria for refugee status. When I worked with Sudanese refugees in Egypt, it was common for people to tell me that, yes, they had a status at UNHCR, and that status was “closed file.” Some of these people were not refugees so much as victims of a cruel and discriminatory system of global migration control. UNHCR has unwittingly become the face of that system for some migrants.

But there are two other reasons why “closed file” cases may still be UNHCR’s concern. The first – the one UNHCR staff are typically most reluctant to acknowledge – is that UNHCR makes mistakes that can have drastic human consequences. Around the time of the FMR article, UNHCR in Cairo was rejecting around three quarters of Sudanese applicants, during the heart of the war in South Sudan, at the height of the ghost house system in Sudan, and without giving reasons for decision or an independent appeal. I am glad to say that errant rejections are, generally speaking, less numerous than they once were. But given the human stakes, a single error in RSD is unacceptable. And given the fact that UNHCR offices are overstretched and still abridge a number of procedural safeguards, such errors are still a predictable outcome.

There is another kind of closed file that UNHCR must be concerned about. In this type, the refugee claim was correctly rejected at the time, but subsequent events created a new and valid basis for refugee status. This is known as a sur place refugee claim.

UNHCR’s procedural standards acknowledge these latter two types of cases but regrettably group them together by allowing for petitions to re-open closed cases. In rule 9.2, UNHCR permits a closed file to be re-opened if reliable new evidence shows that the person now has a valid claim, or if there are “serious reasons” to conclude the case was decided in error.

This is a good policy in substance. But in practice it is likely to run into a problem. In overstretched offices, UNHCR staff struggle to process first appeals, leaving many pending for more than a year. It would be fair to wonder how such an office should also handle re-opening requests. But if they don’t review them promptly then people at genuine risk will be left unprotected for years indefinitely.

Other than the obvious need to get things right the first time, UNHCR probably needs to separate the filing of genuinely new claims from cases where people with closed files want to prove that their initial rejection was a clear error. But this cannot be done until UNHCR creates a tertiary appeal system that could review a limited number of cases from all UNHCR field offices. If such a system existed, local offices would be able to limit their review of petitions to re-open to those that clearly assert a new case based on new evidence or new events.

But UNHCR is not likely to do this anytime soon. And so if you are a genuine refugee who has a closed file, be prepared to wait a very, very long time.

Memo to Media/Assange/President of Ecuador: Snowden Does Not Need a Valid US Passport to Leave Moscow

July 1, 2013

A number of otherwise esteemed American media outlets are reporting that Edward Snowden is stranded in the Moscow airport because the United States invalidated his passport. He may very well be stranded, but it’s not because of his passport.

These reports, appearing in The Washington Post and The New York Times, quote Wikileaks leader Julian Assange blaming the passport cancellation for leaving Snowden “marooned” in Russia. Meanwhile, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said that his fate was in the hands of the Russians because Snowden had not reached Ecuadorian territory or an Ecuadorian diplomatic mission.

Correa seemed to agree that the problem is the passport. He was quoted saying: “This is the decision of Russian authorities. He doesn’t have a passport. I don’t know the Russian laws. I don’t know if he can leave the airport, but I understand that he can’t.”

The problem with this story is that either the Russian or Ecuadorian governments could resolve the problem by issuing Snowden a laissez-passer passport. This is what governments do for refugees who are accepted for resettlement to a third county but do not have a valid passport from their country of origin. This happens fairly frequently because refugees by definition don’t have the protection of their governments and thus have difficulty obtaining and renewing their passports.

If Russia or Ecuador wanted to help him, that is.

The passport invalidation is an excuse. But the bad news for Mr. Snowden is that the President of Ecuador is looking for excuses not to help him.


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