This paper summarizes some typical concerns and suggestions received by UNHCR-Ankara from several non-governmental organizations and offers UNHCR's responses and clarifications. Included are only concerns relating to the procedures or policies of UNHCR in Turkey as regards determination of eligibility for refugee status. The paper does not address issues concerning specific individual cases.

The system of the paper is as follows: the concerns and suggestions are grouped according to the aspect of UNHCR's- policy or procedure involved. Immediately following the concern or suggestion is the response or explanation of the Office.


1. Arrival of Asylum Seekers in Turkey

Some advocacy groups have expressed concern that "asylum seekers receive misinformation upon entering Turkey regarding when they must report to the Turkish authorities" and as a result "suffer delay, postponement, or rejection by UNHCR".

UNHCR-Ankara's policy is to provide asylum seekers on the occasion of this first contact with the Office with information regarding Turkish asylum regulations and their possible implications as regards, their registration, or failure to register, with the Turkish authorities. It is undertood, however, that, despite these efforts, asylum seekers are not always aware of these regulations, due mainly to inaccurate information received from other sources.

UNHCR has had a continuous presence in Silopi (on the border with Iraq) since 1991 and in Agri (on the border with Iran) since mid-1995. Moreover, regular UNHCR missions from Ankara have been dispatched to border areas since the 1994 Regulations were issued. It goes without saying, however, that UNHCR is unable to ensure that the initial information which asylum-seekers receive about the asylum process is accurate. For this purpose, a pamphlet with basic guidance on the procedure was produced jointly by UNHCR and the Government in early 1995. UNHCR has also supplied the Turkish authorities with information videos to be shown to all asylum seekers, and has urged the Turkish authorities to make these videos accessible to asylum-seekers at border points.

UNHCR staff on mission in the border areas not only inform asylum seekers about the Turkish asylum regulations and interview them there, but also accompany them when they approach the Turkish authorities.

It has been alleged that UNHCR-Ankara delays the examination of or rejects claims of asylum seekers who fail to report to the Turkish authorities. This is certainly not the case: each asylum claim, regardless of whether the asylum-seeker reports his/her presence in Turkey to the Turkish authorities, is assessed by UNHCR staff on its merits.

2. Pre-interview Contact with UNHCR-Ankara

One NGO has suggested that UNHCR-Ankara should ensure that appropriate counselling and advice be provided on a systematic basis to all asylum seekers prior to their interview by UNHCR carried out in connection with the examination of their claim for refugee status. The same NGO further suggested that the pre-interview counselling should be provided in person on an individual basis.

Basic counselling on the asylum procedure is provided at the registration interview by officers on an individual basis, as soon as the asylum seeker arrives at UNHCR. The applicant's understanding of the procedure is then checked during the eligibility interview by UNHCR's legal officers.

Due to financial and administrative constraints, more comprehensive pre-interview counselling can not be provided by UNHCR in Turkey. UNHCR is, however, satisfied that the existing procedure provides clear information about seeking asylum and ample opportunity for asylum-seekers' claims to be fully heard and understood. UNHCR also considers it a priority to direct resources to the provision of health and food assistance to refugees. These assistance programs could suffer if UNHCR were to arrange for the expensive legal costs of providing more comprehensive pre-interview counselling.

In some countries, such pre-interview counselling is funded by NGOs. To our knowledge, no NGO has been able to organize or fund such a program. UNHCR-Ankara welcomes the initiative of any NGOs interested in offering this service in Turkey, and would cooperate with the efforts of NGOs to provide such counselling.

An NGO asserted that other UNHCR branch offices provide pre-interview counselling.

It is not a policy of UNHCR Headquarters to provide pre-interview counselling in any countries where refugee status determination under the UNHCR Mandate is conducted. It is correct that some UNHCR branch offices have provided such counselling. Most of these offices are in South-East Asia and have offered such services within the context of the well-funded Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese Refugees. Even within this program, some countries offered counselling in conjunction with the efforts of NGOs present in the area. One advocacy group complained that not even a comprehensive written form of advice as regards asylum procedures is given to asylum seekers by BO Ankara. The group suggested that "detailed information on the nature of the determination mechanism - including the procedures and criteria for determining refugee status - should be provided to every asylum seeker in writing well in advance of the interview."

Asylum seekers are registered by trained officers immediately upon arrival at UNHCR-Ankara. During this registration, they are provided with several information papers in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish or English. The papers provide detailed information regarding the Turkish Government's asylum procedure and the social, medical, legal and subsistence services available to asylum seekers through UNHCR.

Since early 1993, UNHCR-Ankara has provided asylum seekers with written information describing the eligibility procedures applied and the criteria used to determine eligibility. For a few months in 1995 UNHCR suspended this written advice. UNHCR resumed the distribution of written information in order to give asylum seekers a complete picture of the whole asylum process, while urging them to respect government requirements.

3. Procedures of UNHCR Ankara during the Eligibility Interview

Advocacy groups have raised several concerns about UNHCR procedures, which are discussed below:

"There is a lack of standardized selection criteria used by the UNHCR office in Ankara during the eligibility interview."

The refugee determination procedure applied by UNHCR has and continues to adhere to the standards set out in the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, relevant Conclusions adopted by the UNHCR Executive Committee, and in a number of internal instructions on specific subjects issued by UNHCR Headquarters.

"The interpreters used in Ankara are not well-trained."

During the past three years UNHCR Ankara has moved away from the ad-hoc use of interpreters including, for example, refugees awaiting resettlement. The interpreter staff are all full-time employees. The Office has full confidence in their professionalism. They are tested for their spoken and written language abilities prior to being recruited. They are properly trained to interpret in eligibility interviews. New interpreters undergo an apprenticeship period prior to interpreting on their own. The quality of their work is monitored by both an experienced interpreter and a legal officer; and, like all other staff, they are assessed on a regular basis.

"Interview notes are not read back for acknowledgement of accuracy and completeness during the interview."

It is correct that it is not an established policy of UNHCR-Ankara to read interview notes back to asylum seekers during eligibility interviews. Legal officers who conduct the interviews are, however, free to do so or to take other measures to confirm the accuracy of their notes, whenever they feel that they may not have a complete recording of the responses of asylum seekers. It should be noted that reading back interview notes, although desirable, may not be necessary to ensure or promote a fair procedure.

"Asylum seekers' representatives have been barred from accompanying them to interviews with UNHCR." .

The purpose of the interview by UNHCR legal staff is not to discuss the legal issues relating to the cases, but rather to collect information on the specific circumstances which led the applicant to leave his/her country of origin. Only the applicant can provide that information. The presence during the interview of representatives who have not personally directly experienced the events leading to the flight of the applicant, cannot usefully add to his/her statements.

It has also been alleged that interviews are highly controlled by the interviewers and a personal presentation by an applicant free of the strict question and answer format is not allowed.

This complaint is based upon an incomplete understanding of the UNHCR-Ankara eligibility determination procedure. At the beginning of each eligibility interview, the legal officer advises the applicant that he or she will first be asked a series of questions and then will have an opportunity to add anything that he or she wants in a narrative format.

It is a UNHCR worldwide practice to use a questionnaire outline to interview asylum seekers. The questionnaire ensures that all relevant information is collected. The question and answer portion of the interview is controlled by the interviewer because, during this part of the interview, a systematic approach is necessary in order for the legal officer to assess the credibility of the applicant. During the final part of the interview, each applicant has ample opportunity to add anything that he or she wants in any format that he or she chooses. The questions which have been asked serve to remind and guide the applicant as to what is relevant to his or her refugee claim.

In some correspondence from NGO and advocacy groups it has been argued that "children's claims are not included in their parents' cases by the UNHCR office in Turkey. Nor are children invited by the UNHCR to speak about their fears to return."

UNHCR does take children's claims into consideration. It is extremely rare, however, that a claim for refugee status will result from the activities of a child, especially when that child is accompanied by parents who are also seeking asylum. When it does become known to a legal officer that the basis for a claim also stems directly from the child, that child is interviewed.

It should also be noted that there are paramount reasons not to require that accompanying children be routinely interviewed as it can be traumatic for a child to recount his or her experiences in the country of origin..

4. UNHCR Ankara's Procedure for Informing Asylum Seekers of the Results of the Eligibility Determination After the First Interview

One NGO has argued that after a first interview each asylum seeker should be given written reasons explaining in sufficient detail the grounds on which a claim was rejected. This would provide an opportunity to appeal the decision more effectively. "Oral notification at the beginning of the second interview is not sufficient."

More than a question of the written or oral nature of the procedure, the issue at stake is that asylum-seekers are entitled to know the reasons for the decision. That purpose may be achieved also through an oral procedure which, indeed, has been accepted in many legal areas in a number of countries as providing sufficient legal safeguards. UNHCR, for a number of reasons, including resources constraints, would prefer to provide such reasons orally.

On the same issue, it has been said that asylum seekers' cases are disadvantaged because UNHCR Ankara does not provide reasons for its decisions.

In fact, asylum seekers who have been rejected are given, verbally, the reasons for their rejection at the time of their appeal interviews. They are invited to explain any major contradictions or inconsistencies that might have led to the rejection of their claim.

5. Post-interview Procedures and the Appeals Process of UNHCR Ankara

An NGO further asserted that, "all asylum seekers whose cases are rejected by UNHCR after a first interview, including those whose cases are determined to be `manifestly unfounded', should receive an automatic review of the decision, including a second interview conducted by a different legal officer."

All asylum seekers whose cases are rejected after their first interview have an automatic right to appeal. Even those whose claims are determined to be "manifestly unfounded" after a full eligibility interview by one of our legal officers, have that possibility whenever new elements to the claim are presented.

Asylum seekers who have been rejected as "manifestly unfounded" are given the right to submit a re-opening request in writing, should they wish to have their cases reviewed again. All re-opening requests are reviewed by a legal officer, who, in turn, recommends whether a case should be re-opened or not. Based on this recommendation, another decision is later made by a senior legal officer

Other statements made by concerned groups claim that "the failure of the system in providing an effective appeal process is also shown in the fact that applicants are asked to produce new information and documents in support of their claims. In this manner the review is limited to considering errors or deficiencies in applicant's presentation case and disregards entirely the possibility of mistakes in a decision-maker's conclusion."

It should first be noted that all cases are reviewed by at least two legal officers before the first decision is finalized. Asylum seekers are not required to submit new reasons to have their cases reviewed on appeal. During the appeal review, the possibility of mistakes in a decision maker's conclusion is taken into consideration and assessments are reviewed for the existence of such mistakes. On a number occasions, the senior legal officers have reversed negative decisions after finding an error of law. New information is only requested from cases rejected after two reviews or from cases found to be abusive or manifestly unfounded.

One advocacy group stated that "asylum seekers are denied access to their files because of UNHCR's confidentiality rules."

Confidentiality rules provide protection to asylum seekers by ensuring that information given by them is not divulged to third parties. However, the files not only contain the information provided by and concerning the individual applicant but also other information which may be of a confidential nature.

6. UNHCR-Ankara's Interaction with the Turkish Government

In one statement an advocacy group urged UNHCR "to act with vigor and outside closed doors to condemn and obligate the Turkish authorities to observe the UN Convention and other relevant instruments concerning protection of refugees."

UNHCR-Ankara regularly intervenes with the Turkish authorities in favour of asylum seekers who are of concern to UNHCR. In 1995 and 1996 dozens of deportations of asylum seekers and refugees were prevented through intervention by the Office.

UNHCR does not hesitate to advocate reform when international standards are not being met. Turkey's implementation of the Asylum Regulation since November 1994 has led to an increase in the number of refoulements. UNHCR responded by preparing a report which explains flaws in the Regulation and their consequences on Turkey's compliance with international obligations. In June 1995, UNHCR formally presented this assessment to the Government and since that time UNHCR-Ankara has regularly engaged the Turkish authorities in dialogue to improve the procedures

It has also been said that UNHCR Ankara has refused to prevent the Turkish Government's deportation of asylum seekers whom UNHCR did not consider to be refugees although they had already been granted entry visas by third countries on humanitarian or refugee grounds.

Although UNHCR is sympathetic to the plight of all people the legal mandate of the Office obliges it to intervene with the Turkish authorities only on behalf of persons who are of concern to UNHCR, i.e. asylum-seekers whose status has not as yet been determined as well as recognized refugees.

7. Emergency resettlement for persons with security problems

One NGO suggested that BO Ankara has failed to provide emergency resettlement procedures to refugees who have expressed fear for their safety in Turkey.

Emergency resettlement procedures have always been available to refugees whose safety is threatened. In 1995 and 1996, for instance, emergency resettlement procedures were used by UNHCR-Ankara for some 140 cases (360 persons).

UNHCR - Ankara

April 1997