UNHCR and UK work to improve refugee status determination

News Stories, 27 October 2008

© UNHCR/A.Johnstone
An asylum seeker in a British immigration detention centre. UNHCR is helping the UK government review refugee determination status procedures.

LONDON, United Kingdom, October 27 (UNHCR) A project by the UN refugee agency and the British government to improve the process of refugee status determination (RSD) is acting as a model for other countries.

UNHCR and the United Kingdom's Home Office launched the Quality Initiative (QI) project in 2004 after the high number of asylum applications put severe strain on RSD procedures in the UK and raised concerns about the quality of the process. A peak was reached in 2002 when the UK recorded the second largest number of asylum claims worldwide.

Under the QI scheme, UNHCR staff working in London with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and other government facilities audit asylum decisions and identify trends of good practice in assessment of credibility of asylum claims. They also look at application of the correct refugee law concepts as well as areas requiring improvement.

"Being located on site at the UK Border Agency allows us to work even more closely with our government counterparts," said UNHCR Senior Protection Clerk Gemma Woods, who is working on the project.

The QI project has to date sent five reports to the UK Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, who sets out recommendations based on the findings of the audits. UNHCR staff in London work with UKBA counterparts to implement those recommendations that are accepted by the minister of state.

"UNHCR welcomes the willingness and transparency of the UK Border Agency to engage and work with UNHCR colleagues and the headway made to improve many of the areas of concern identified," said Jacqueline Parlevliet, UNHCR's acting representative in the UK.

Key recommendations so far proposed by UNHCR include improvements to credibility assessment (establishing the relevant facts of an asylum claim); training and accreditation of decision makers; updating and improving policy instructions; and stressing equal emphasis between qualitative and quantitative targets.

The latest report, meanwhile, highlights serious concerns about the UKBA's fast-track RSD process in the Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth detention centres, where UNHCR staff found that the emphasis on quick decision-making does not allow case workers to reach well-reasoned decisions on some individual cases.

"The tight time-frame for decisions which are usually made within three days of an asylum seeker's arrival at a detention centre often results in cases not being given full consideration", said Parlevliet.

The QI project piloted in the UK is also serving as a model for initiatives under way between UNHCR and eight other European countries Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. These projects are being overseen by the UNHCR office in Budapest with support from the European Refugee Fund of the European Commission.

In the UK, joint efforts are under way between UNHCR and the UKBA to develop a long-term quality assurance system to ensure that quality decision-making remains a continuing priority.

By Sarah-Jane Savage in London, United Kingdom