©M.J. Caparroso


Region: Asia-Pacific
Country: Philippines
Tags: COVID-19
Timeframe: December 2020 - Ongoing

Entities sharing this good practice: Republic of the Philippines, Department of Justice-Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Unit (DOJ-RSPPU)

Submitted by: Chief State Counsel George Ortha II

Partners: UNHCR Philippines

Good practice

In March 2020, the Government of Philippine declared a public health emergency to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The health and safety measures that were instituted, such as lockdowns and restrictions on face-to-face meetings, posed challenges for asylum-seekers and refugees to lodge their applications and request necessary documents through the Department of Justice-Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Unit (DOJ-RSPPU), the mandated body to facilitate Refugee and Stateless status determination procedures in Philippines.

To ensure that asylum procedures and protection services remain available even during public emergencies, the DOJ-RSPPU pursued discussions on preparing a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). While it was drafted against the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent restrictions, the BCP was crafted to allow flexibility in, and continuation of asylum procedures and referral mechanisms that would ensure the continued access of persons of concern (POC) to protection mechanisms. The BCP, moreover, covers sections on Refugee and Stateless Status Determination, Protection, Database and Registry and Communications, and Critical Function Staff. The BCP is internal to the DOJ-RSPPU and is not publicly accessible.

Impact of good practice
With the adjustments made, even during the drafting stage of the BCP, asylum-seekers and refugees were able to file their applications and access the necessary services while remaining compliant with health and safety restrictions in place. For example, the DOJ-RSPPU adapted its refugee status determination (RSD) procedures and referrals to allow online requests and processing to continue. Assistance for asylum or stateless registration and documentation also continued when the DOJ-RSPPU allowed the online renewal of asylum seekers’ Certificate of Pending Application (CPA), which serves as a protection document against refoulement. The BCP also allowed electronic applications for refugee or stateless status to ensure that individuals unable to file their applications at the DOJ-RSPPU or the Field Offices of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) will still have access to the asylum mechanism and the broader protection framework in the Philippines. Online coordination with other service agencies were also facilitated to ensure that services continue to be extended amid the operational limitations posed by the pandemic. Measures were also taken to ensure the integrity of documents through a unique coding system that allows the DOJ-RSPPU to track the documents it issues and ensure its validity.
Impact of COVID-19
The restrictions and challenges posed by the pandemic highlighted the need for the Government to adapt its procedures to ensure the continued protection of POC in anticipation of operational limitations that may arise from any public emergency. The BCP also emphasized the need to continuously engage Government and non-Government partners to ensure POC’s access to services, such as asylum or stateless registration, refugee or stateless status determination interviews, and referrals for services (including immigration documentation, employment permits, medical assistance, and financial assistance, among others) remain in place.
Lessons learned

As a guiding document, the DOJ-RSPPU considered the provisions of its Procedural Standards Manual (PSM) to ensure that the steps outlined in the BCP align with regular procedures under normal circumstances. As the document was drafted with public emergencies in mind, another advantage was the relationships established by the DOJ-RSPPU with partner Government agencies to ensure their readiness to assist POC. The document was complemented with the consideration of technology, equipment, and materials that allow for continued assistance in a safe working environment. The fact that POC are being included in regular programs of the State also helped in advocacy messaging, since referral agencies were already aware of the sensitivities surrounding the circumstances of POC.