Fairness & the UNHCR

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Fall95/Winter 96)

In November 1995, the Headquarters of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva issued a Position Statement (see page 9) with respect to a sit-in staged by Iranian asylum seekers the previous August in Ankara-Turkey. The sit-in was staged to protest deportation orders issued by the Turkish government and to the closure of cases by the UNHCR Office. One hundred and sixty one asylum seekers participated in the sit-in, however, that number was merely representative of the number of persons in similar situations across Turkey, which is several times more.

UNHCR is an inter-governmental organization with the primary task of protecting refugees. In Turkey, this task has been hinged on the agency's refugee determination system. Only those who pass the determination test are protected against deportation and are able to receive eventual resettlement. The Turkish government deports refugee applicants who are rejected by the UNHCR, a matter explicitly stated in the deportation orders. (see page 9).

The sit-in of 161 Iranian refugees called attention to UNHCR's determination procedure. It put a legitimate burden of proof on the UNHCR to show that its determination procedure has conformed with general standards necessary to produce truly fair decisions and that each sit-in applicant has been reassured that he or she has had a fair hearing and a meaningful opportunity to challenge a negative decision.

As Iranian Refugees' Alliance is informed, the Headquarters' investigation with respect to the sit-in commenced in September 1995. However, none of the sit-in participants were ever approached. The Headquarters simply consulted the Branch Office in Turkey and came out in favor of the Office. The November "Statement" said the cases had been "carefully" considered and reviewed in an "extensive process" and that on "the facts known to the legal officers" the profiles had not justified the granting of refugee status. It added that "many of the cases were given a third or fourth review". Finally, based on these assumptions, the Headquarters in Geneva reached the decision "to fully support the position of their office in Turkey and the subsequent position not to re-open these cases for a further review."

There is serious unfairness resulting from investigations which only includes one side of a dispute, but what is also remiss in terms of fairness is regard for safeguards necessary to ensure that the facts of a claim have been fully and correctly considered and that determination criteria have been applied properly. Multiple reviews often repeat earlier errors, if there is no mechanism in place to provide for an effective identification of errors or inadequacies leading to an initial negative decision. Indeed, one common criticism of the UNHCR system has been failure on the part of legal officers to elicit all the relevant facts of each case. Thus, it would be no surprise if legal officers have made incorrect decisions simply due to lack of "known" facts. A point in fact is that the unfairness of the UNHCR determination system in Turkey has raised serious concerns for a number of other human rights organizations. Criticisms have referred to lack of several safeguards considered basic and minimal for achieving fairness. It has been noted that:

1) applicants have not received legal counseling before or during their interviews,
2) applicants have been denied representation by counsel or advocates.
3) applicants have not been informed of the basis for a decision denying them refugee status.
4) applicants have been refused access to their files, including access to records of their interview, and,
5) applicants have not been afforded the right to an effective and meaningful appeal (see page 6).

Other basic safeguards such as the availability of competent and impartial interpreters, a practice to allow applicants to acknowledge the accuracy and completeness of their statements recorded in the interviews, or even a laxity as basic as taking notes by the applicants during the interviews, have also been dispensed with.

There have also been widespread allegations regarding attitudes of hostility, partiality and exhibition of skepticism on the part of the legal officers conducting the interviews and making crucial decisions. Although it is difficult to confirm these allegations because interviews are held behind closed doors, the frequency of these allegations has raised serious concerns about the quality of treatment asylum seekers receive from the Office. Furthermore, several individual cases have come to the attention of human rights organizations which suggest that claimants have been rejected based on an improper or inadequate criteria, misconceptions, lack of information or misinformation about country conditions and unreasonable requirement of proof. The limited scope of inquiries at the interviews is another indicator for inadequate appreciation of the breadth and depth of persecution in Iran.

When Iranian Refugees' Alliance inquired from the sit-in participants about the nature of the procedure they have been through, their answers confirmed shortcomings and flaws that had been identified earlier. For instance, many of the participants had not been provided with adequate translation. Some left the interviews with serious doubts over the accuracy and completeness of what was recorded in their files. Most applicants found their interviews intimidating and humiliating. As a result of the prosecutorial zeal demonstrated by legal officers, rather than being able to provide all the important facts of their case, some were forced to spend their entire interview on credibility tests.

There are a number of sit-in participants who due to the circumstances they have faced, have made misrepresentations. However, despite presenting justified reasons, they have not been afforded an opportunity for presenting their cases again. These people are political activists who have been in Iraq before coming to Turkey. When they fled to Turkey, UNHCR was systematically rejecting persons in similar situation, claiming that they fit in the category of "Irregular Movement", persons who, according to the Executive Committee of the UNHCR, have already found protection in another country but moved to another country for personal reasons. This policy was maintained for two years, despite the fact that Iranian political activists were neither protected nor had access to an effective resettlement procedure in Iraq. The evidence attesting to this fact is the large number of such refugees residing in Iraq who despite being assessed to be in need of resettlement by the UNHCR have remained in deplorable and insecure conditions. Year after year, these persons appear as sheer statistics in UNHCR yearly "Assessment Needs" (see page 7). The position not to re-open the cases of such persons in the sit-in is also unfair because in the past similar cases have been reconsidered by the UNHCR Branch Ofiice in Turkey and eventually offered protection and resettlement.

The UNHCR Headquarter' Statement with respect to the Iranian sit-in is unreasoned, uninvestigated and unprincipled. By furthering the denial of a fair determination to the sit-in participants and thereby subjecting them to forcible return and to possible persecution, the Headquarters' Statement bears a disturbing apathy. The endorsement offered by the Headquarters to their Branch Office's determination procedure, despite its non-compliance with internationally accepted standards, only serves the organizations utilitarian purposes. It promotes despise and neglect towards principles of justice and fairness which are the crux of refugee protection.

From UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva (reprint)


Since August 4, a group of Iranian asylum-seekers has staged a sit-in at the headquarters of the United Socialist Party in Ankara. After careful review of these cases, UNHCR does not find that their claims meet refugee criteria. Nevertheless, the Iranians have been demanding that their cases be reopened and that the deportation orders issued to some by the Government of Turkey be revoked. (Deportation orders are issued by the Government to applicants who have failed to convince the authorities that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin.) The sit-in organizers invited other rejected Iranian asylum-seekers to participate. Since then UNHCR's Office in Ankara has been flooded with correspondence and telephone calls from groups expressing sympathy and solidarity with this group.

As of 9 November, the sit-in involves about 150 persons, although some individuals come and go. The group, including women and children, has been staying in crowded and unsanitary conditions for over two months. The Government is taking no special action against the protesters but has advised them to return to wherever they were staying and await the review of their individual cases. However, several cases are reported to have received deportation orders issued by the authorities in their assigned cities of residence upon expiration of their residence permits. Although UNHCR's assessment is clearly negative, several cases comprising some fifty persons have not yet been finally decided by the Government.

Non-European asylum-seekers in Turkey who do not have passports and visas must register their claims with the Government in order to be granted temporary asylum under Turkish law. In parallel, UNHCR has been implementing a refugee status determination procedure in Turkey according to the UNHCR Statute and in view of Turkey's geographical reservation with regard to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, and as UNHCR been urging the Government of Turkey to implement its asylum procedures in line with international law and internationally accepted standards. UNHCR argues for full access by asylum-seekers to the Government procedure. A positive assessment of refugee claims by UNHCR is the basis for intervention when the Government's assessment is negative. UNHCR's positive assessment of cases is also the basis for submission to countries of resettlement.

The Legal Unit of UNHCR in Ankara has carefully considered and reviewed the cases of Iranian individuals currently residing in the premises of the Socialist Party Headquarters in Ankara. UNHCR's lawyers have concluded after an extensive process that the profile of these cases, on the facts known to us, does not justify the granting of refugee status for any one of the reasons contained in the Statute of the Office and replicated in similar terms in the 1951 Convention and as defined under international law.

UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva has been aware of the situation and the process and fully supports the decisions taken by its office in Turkey and the subsequent position not to re-open these cases for a further review, given that each case was carefully considered at first instance and in a review procedure. Many cases were given even a third or fourth review where justified by relevant new facts.

UNHCR would urge all concerned individuals and organizations who have contacted us about this sit-in to concentrate their attention on persons whom UNHCR believes meet refugee criteria and on helping asylum-seekers to understand and comply with Turkish law. Constructive expressions of concern to the Government from non-governmental organizations about the way asylum procedures are being implemented in Turkey might also complement UNHCR's efforts on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers.
November 1995
UNHCR Geneva