“The importance of these procedures cannot be overemphasized. … A wrong decision might cost the person’s life or liberty.”
– UNHCR training manual (1989)
What is RSD?
- Refugee status determination (RSD) is the process of deciding whether an asylum-seeker is a genuine refugee in danger of persecution. If a refugee is turned down in RSD, she is more likely to be detained and deported to a country where she will be persecuted. Read more here.
Where does UNHCR do RSD?
- UNHCR received 96,800 RSD applications worldwide in 2010. Although these cases are spread across dozens of countries around the world, the vast majority are concentrated in handful of offices in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Read more here.
Why do UNHCR’s RSD procedures matter?
- Lives are at stake. In many countries, UNHCR RSD determines whether an asylum-seeker will be subject to prolonged detention and deportation. If UNHCR errantly rejects a genuine refugee, she will be at greater risk of persecution.
- The UN sets an example. UNHCR is responsible for guarding standards of refugee protection. When governments set up their own asylum systems, they often borrow procedures and policies from UNHCR.
- UNHCR RSD is the gateway to protection for tens of thousands. The decisions that UNHCR makes in RSD cases often determine whether refugees will get access to healthcare and social assistance, and often whether they will be able to apply for resettlement to the USA, Canada, Australia or elsewhere.
Why do UNHCR’s RSD procedures need reform?
- Withholding of evidence. Contrary to its own advice to governments, UNHCR policy calls for the withholding of evidence from asylum-seekers by UNHCR field offices. As a matter of policy, UNHCR refuses to give asylum-seekers copies of their own interview transcripts or the opportunity to examine much evidence considered in their cases. This conflicts with UNHCR’s own advice to governments. After several years of reform, access to evidence is perhaps the single biggest gap between UNHCR policy and established principles of due process. Read more here.
- Giving written reasons to rejected asylum-seekers is optional for UNHCR offices. UNHCR has initiated a “reasons project” to promote providing reasons for rejection in many of the largest of its RSD operates. Progress has been slow, but UNHCR offices have been improving.
- UNHCR relies extensively on junior staff and sometimes UN Volunteers to make life or death decisions in complicated cases. Of 300 UNHCR staff working on RSD cases in dozens of countries, only around half are full time, and only one in six are on regular UN contracts.
- Right to an appeal: UNHCR policy provides rejected asylum-seekers a right to seek an appeal, but in most places there is no independent body to decide the appeals. Often appeals are judged by close colleagues of the person who made the first decision. However, a few UNHCR offices have separate appeals units which provide more independence to the process. UNHCR does not object in principle to providing an independent appeal, but doing so in practice across dozens of field offices is a practical challenge. Asylum Access (RSDWatch’s parent organization) is working with UNHCR to try to develop ideas to fill this gap.
What has UNHCR done?
- UNHCR has promised “an ambitious and progressive process of reform” of its RSD procedures worldwide, and in 2003 issued its first set of standards governing fairness for its own field offices. But within UNHCR, some are resisting continuing the reform process.
- UNHCR has initiated new training programs for its staff, recognized that asylum-seekers have the right to counsel, and has begun experimenting with giving reasons for rejection in writing and disclosing evidence to select legal aid organizations.
Lives have been saved by reform
- Since the UN began improving the fairness of the way it decides refugee cases, fewer refugees have been turned away by UN offices around the world. In 2002 UNHCR refused protection to 22,575 asylum-seekers. In 2008, UNHCR turned away 8,032 worldwide.