CAIRO: Michael Kagan, an American human rights lawyer based in Cairo, led a seminar at the American University in Cairo on the work of the UN refugee agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the rise of legal aid programs for asylum-seekers in Egypt.
Kagan has worked with asylum-seekers in Egypt since 1998 and is also the founder of RSDwatch.org, an independent source of information about the method by which the UN refugee agency decides refugee cases. The site was created to collect information and to stimulate discussion of human rights challenges in the UNHCR system.
According to the RSDwatch.org, UNHCR decides the fate of more than 80,000 asylum-seekers, especially in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. “UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedures generally lack independent appeal and rely routinely on secret evidence. While the UNHCR office in Cairo is progressive compared to other locations, Kagan argues that there is a need for legal aid programs in the Middle East that can help monitor the work of the UN agency and provide applicants with a fair case process.
“Procedural fairness matters, because wrong decisions put people in danger of deportation, arrest, detention, violence, torture, and worse, his Web site states.
The UNHCR RSD policy is still unfair and needs to be reformed in order to be able to provide refugees with full protection, Kagan claims.
For example, asylum-seekers are sometimes not provided with a real reason from UNHCR for why their application has been rejected.
The routine use of so-called secret evidence by UNHCR results in unfair treatment of asylum-seekers. In cases rejected based on secret evidence, the UNHCR can refuse the applicant access to the ‘evidence’ on which the case has been rejected.
Moreover, the fact that the flawed system of the UN agency has escaped scrutiny from civil society in the past has resulted in that the work of the agency has not been as closely analyzed and evaluated as other UN bodies, Kagan notes.
The cracks in the system along with increased demand by refugees, growing critique of humanitarianism and rise of local human rights movements spurred the rise of legal aid programs to asylum-seekers.
Also, the fact that frustrated refugees started finding informal solutions to their problems, which sometimes even involved bribery and corruption, clearly marked the need for organized legal aid programs.
Kagan recommends asylum-seekers to use legal aid services since it can help prevent error in their UNHCR Refugee Status Determination (RSD). Professional legal aid will help prevent both errors made by the applicants themselves as well as the decision-makers, he continues.
Also, legal aid programs serve an important watchdog role on the work of UNHCR.
In terms of dilemmas faced by the aid programs, Kagan believes that organizational structure and funding are two of the main obstacles to overcome.
Organizational structure is not easily achieved in the Middle East due to the difficult process NGOs and human rights organizations face during their registration. Many organizations file their registrations as companies or branches of a foreign-based organization which easily can create structural problems, Kagan continues.
Last year, New York-based Human Rights Watch released the report “Margins of Repression: State Limits on Nongovernmental Organization Activism, in which the organization documents several cases where the Egyptian security services rejected NGO registrations, decided who could serve on NGO boards of directors, harassed NGO activists and interfered with donations reaching the groups.
Kagan also notes that UNHCR recently has made progress on a number of topics of concern. Case information is better conveyed to the applicants and there is speeder processing of special needs cases.
However, Kagan is still concerned about the blurry provision of reason for rejection and the use of secret evidence by the UN agency.
In June 2006, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that UNHCR incorrectly rejected an Iranian’s couple’s refugee application and put a woman at risk of inhumane punishment.
The case, D. and Others v. Turkey, was filed by an Iranian couple whose applications for refugee status were refused three times by UNHCR in Ankara. The woman had been sentenced by an Iranian Islamic court to 100 lashes for fornication, but UNHCR said that she would be subject only to “symbolic application of the sentence.
By finding against Turkey, Euroep’s highest human rights court signaled that governments relying blindly on UNHCR to assess refugee claims may be violating their own obligations under human rights law.