Refugee Status Determination

Refugee Status Determination, or RSD, is the legal or administrative process by which governments or UNHCR determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under international, regional or national law. RSD is often a vital process in helping refugees realize their rights under international law.

States have the primary responsibility to conduct RSD, however, UNHCR may conduct RSD under its mandate when a state is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and/or does not have a fair and efficient national asylum procedure in place.

UNHCR works closely with states to support and capacitate them in taking over increased responsibility for RSD and with improving their RSD systems. UNHCR advocates that states establish national RSD systems that are fair, efficient, adaptable, have integrity and that produce quality decisions. Within the broader framework of the Global Compact on Refugees that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 17th of December, UNHCR will be establishing an Asylum Capacity Support Group, which will assist states in establishing or strengthening their national asylum systems.  

In any given year, UNHCR conducts RSD under its mandate in between 50-60 countries, depending on where the applications are received. In 2017, UNHCR registered 252,100 new individual asylum applications, making it the second largest RSD body in the world. In approximately 20 countries UNHCR conducts RSD jointly with the government pending the state assuming full responsibility for RSD, while in many more countries UNHCR conducts a range of capacity development activities.

In situations where UNHCR conducts RSD under its mandate, UNHCR continues to explore and implement measures to enhance the effectiveness of its RSD response. Where appropriate, UNHCR seeks to identify alternatives to individual RSD under its mandate for select groups of asylum-seekers. UNHCR also uses, and encourages states to use, the most appropriate case processing methodology for a given population, taking into account its characteristics. To this end, UNHCR published in 2017 a glossary of RSD case processing terms that guides the use of case processing methodology in a given situation.

The core standards and best practices to ensure harmonized, efficient and quality RSD procedures, including reception and registration, are presented in the “Procedural Standards for RSD under UNHCR’s Mandate.” The adoption and implementation of these revised procedural standards is essential to harmonizing RSD and ensuring that persons of concern and the international community continue to have confidence in the fairness, integrity and quality of UNHCR decision-making. Originally published in 2003, a revised and updated version of the RSD Procedural Standards was published in 2020, to reflect legal and procedural developments. The Procedural Standards are available publicly here.
While primarily intended as an internal legal document to guide UNHCR operations in the conduct of refugee status determination under the Mandate, the RSD Procedural Standards have wider legal relevance, for they codify core due process standards applicable in the asylum process. To a large extent, they reflect the ‘crystallization’ of procedural practice in both mandate operations and national asylum systems based on relevant international human rights and refugee law standards. They should therefore be deemed to have significant weight and be utilized as such in devising strategies and proposals for strengthening or developing national asylum systems.

UNHCR Country Guidance

To strengthen the fairness, efficiency, adaptability, integrity and quality of RSD procedures and decision-making worldwide, UNHCR also develops and delivers specialized RSD training for UNHCR and government RSD staff and others involved in the asylum process, and supports the development, and implementation of quality assurance initiatives, at the country and regional level.

To assist decision-makers (including state asylum officials, judges and tribunal members, and UNHCR staff) with the assessment of international protection needs, UNHCR issues country-specific policy guidance, in the form of Eligibility Guidelines or International Protection Considerations. These documents contain legal interpretations of the refugee criteria in respect of specific profiles of applicants, on the basis of the human rights and security situation in the country of origin, as well as the social, economic, and humanitarian conditions. UNHCR’s assessment of the country conditions is based on in-depth country of origin information research, information provided by UNHCR’s global network of field offices and material from independent country specialists, researchers and other sources, rigorously reviewed for reliability.

In certain circumstances, UNHCR issues Non-Return Advisories, which contain country-specific policy guidance with regard to the feasibility of return based on the conditions in a particular country of origin.

In some cases, UNHCR may issue Safe Third Country Papers, which assess the availability of international protection for asylum-seekers and refugees in particular countries of asylum.

UNHCR eligibility guidelines, international protection considerations, non-return advisories and other country-related guidance can be accessed on Refworld.

Country of Origin Information (COI)

Country of Origin Information (COI) is information which is used in RSD procedures. COI reports collate relevant information on conditions in countries of origin pertinent to the assessment of claims for international protection. To assist decision-makers, UNHCR commissions COI report to independent expert organizations.

The Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) maintains a global COI database, which is freely accessible here.