There have been numerous challenges faced by national asylum systems over the past several years. The number of asylum applications has been consistently high, leading to increased pressures on the systems and mounting backlogs. Even in 2020, despite a historic drop in applications due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, there were still almost 1.3 million individual asylum applications received in national asylum systems. While this was much less than the almost 2.2 million applications received in 2019, asylum systems still struggled with the additional challenge of operating in the context of a public health emergency.
In some cases, the convergence of these events led to temporary suspensions of asylum systems, long backlogs of pending asylum applications and asylum-seekers being unable to effectively access protection. This changed and still unpredictable situation raises important questions, particularly whether asylum systems can effectively operate in our current global context, and if so, what measures can be put in place that balances the need for efficiency with other elements of a quality system.
While the current context may seem daunting, there are practical steps that States can take to tackle asylum backlogs and create robust asylum systems that can respond both to current needs as well as future challenges that may arise. To support States in this respect, UNHCR has published a new paper entitled ‘Effective Processing of Asylum Applications: Practical Considerations and Practices’.
The paper sets out measures introduced by national asylum authorities to effectively process asylum applications while also upholding system fairness, quality, and integrity. By examining practices that States have employed to significantly increase productivity in asylum processing, UNHCR proposes options for systemic change and building resilience that serve both countries of asylum and individuals in need of international protection. Such an approach is in line with the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which aims to, among others, strengthen the fairness, efficiency, adaptability, and integrity of national asylum systems.
Structured around four streams, the paper explores State practices in the following key areas: (i) registration, frontloading of data collection and data management; (ii) triaging and differentiated case processing modalities; (iii) due process standards; and (iv) systemic issues related to effective processing. The practical examples outlined in these areas have the potential to be replicated in other asylum systems as part of a response to new or protracted applications.
The paper emphasizes the importance of having strong registration, frontloading of data collection, and appropriate data management processes. Weak registration and data collection early in the asylum process often negatively impact efficiency at later stages. State practices mentioned in the paper illustrate how digitalization and introduction of interoperable data systems allow for efficient communication and exchange of information with other government systems thereby improving the quality of registration and data collection. Other practices in the paper demonstrate how setting up an integrated system with multiple service providers operating in a sequential manner – the so-called “under one roof” approach – can maximize efficiency in information exchange and collaboration between stakeholders.
The paper further illustrates that ‘triaging’ and differentiated case processing modalities are important caseload management tools to increase asylum system efficiency. For that reason, several States have already introduced triaging in asylum case processing based on a set of criteria. UNHCR recommends that when introducing triaging and usage of differentiated case processing modalities, oversight and review mechanisms are carefully considered to ensure that the quality and fairness of the process is not affected, and that the system is sufficiently flexible and adaptable to allow for changes both in terms of an increase or decrease of new arrivals and a (sudden) change in country of origin situation, among other factors.
The good practices from various States in the paper demonstrate that processing efficiency can be achieved or even enhanced while maintaining standards of fairness. For example, State practices suggest that the provision of free legal counselling and representation by a lawyer at an early stage in the process has many benefits, including improved trust in the process by the applicant and enhanced quality of the legal adjudication at first instance, which ultimately leads to a significant reduction in decisions being overturned at the appeal level.
Lastly, the paper takes note of the importance of proper system design to ensure long-term sustainability and adaptability of asylum systems. To this effect, close coordination between relevant stakeholders, such as border control, police, asylum authorities and civil society, and appropriate planning and allocation of resources at all stages of the process, have proven to go a long way in making asylum processing faster and fairer.
In this challenging global context, it is important to realize that it is possible to build resilient and adaptable asylum systems while maintaining fairness and the integrity of case processing. With robust structures in place, States are well placed to effectively tackle existing backlogs whilst also responding to new arrivals in a context of increasing forced displacement.