Magazine article Forced Migration Review

UNHCR and Individual Refugee Status Determination

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

UNHCR and Individual Refugee Status Determination

Article excerpt

Determination of refugee status is a critical first step in meeting the protection needs of those requiring international protection and is one of UNHCR's core functions.

Refugees may be recognised as such either on a group basis ('prima facie') or individually. The vast majority of the world's refugees are recognised by way of a prima facie group determination, based on an evaluation of the situation in the country of origin which gave rise to their leaving. This article, however, focuses on individual refugee status determination (RSD).

Individual RSD is used primarily in situations of mixed flows, when it is necessary to distinguish refugees from other migrants. It may be carried out by states and/or UNHCR. It is preferable, however, that RSD be conducted by states as it is governments which are responsible for ensuring that refugees on their territory are treated in accordance with international standards, subject to supervision by UNHCR as required by its protection mandate. 102 of the 146 states signatories to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol have established national procedures.

Where states have not yet acceded to the international refugee instruments or have not yet established effective national procedures, UNHCR may have to step in and undertake individual RSD. Through conducting RSD, UNHCR can determine whether asylum seekers qualify for international protection.

In 2007, UNHCR was involved in refugee status determination in 68 countries. Over 90% of the RSD work in terms of applications received and decisions rendered was carried out in 15 countries; the largest operations were in Kenya, Malaysia, Turkey, Somalia, Egypt and Yemen. Between 2003 and 2006, applications to UNHCR increased by 48%. In 2007, UNHCR received 75,690 applications (12% of global asylum applications) and rendered 51,200 decisions.

The growth in UNHCR's role in conducting RSD has brought with it a number of challenges, some faced by states and some unique to UNHCR. The first is to ensure adequate and appropriate staffing. UNHCR has 140 staff devoted full-time to RSD, and another 150 part-time. The ratio of staff to the number of asylum applications received by UNHCR is far less than in most national systems in Europe or North America, for example. In addition, half of the 140 full-time staff are on short-term contracts which, in view of the resulting high turnover, has a negative impact on efficiency and increases training demands. Expert RSD supervision is also required in all of these operations. Having staff spread across the globe makes consistency - and provision of training - a challenge. There are also issues of ensuring that decisions are made in a timely manner plus concerns about staff security, integrity of the system and burnout. Finally, while in some countries the attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees are very positive, in others the protection environment can be quite negative, rendering UNHCR's RSD work even more challenging.

In view of these obstacles and limited resources, UNHCR has made and continues to make efforts to strengthen and improve RSD under its mandate, and to strive for high quality 'first-instance' decisions1 - ie to ensure the early identification of those in need of international protection, as well as of those who do not need or deserve it.

Improving UNHCR's RSD operations

A number of initiatives have been taken to ensure quality, efficiency and consistency in UNHCR's RSD operations. These include the publication in 2003 of Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR's Mandate2 (designed to harmonise procedures globally) and a comprehensive training programme for all staff responsible for conducting or supervising RSD; in 2008, this course was provided in six regions of the world. …

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