Continuation of Ghana’s asylum procedures in the context of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Virtual RSD Interview conducted at the Ghana Refugee Board office © Patience Foley
Entities sharing this good practice: Ghana Refugee Board (GRB)
Submitted by: Araba Kpakpa-Smith (Head of Protection Unit, Ghana Refugee Board) and Vincent Babalanda (Protection Officer, UNHCR Ghana)
Partners: UNHCR Ghana
Visit their website: https://www.grb.gov.gh
The Ghana Refugee Board (GRB), established under the Ghana Refugee Law of 1992, is the mandated agency for coordinating activities relating to the management and care of asylum-seekers and refugees in Ghana. One of the GRB’s responsibilities is conducting refugee status determination (RSD), a vital process which enables asylum-seekers and refugees to seek and enjoy international protection in Ghana. In the Ghana RSD process, RSD interviews and assessments are drafted by eligibility officers, and the GRB makes the final determination on claims.
In March 2020, the Government of Ghana declared a public health emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and instituted measures requiring all facilities and establishments to ensure implementation of social distancing and health and safety protocols. This created challenges for the continued operation of the GRB Secretariat, as many of its activities, such as RSD interviews, involve face-to-face interaction.
In order to prevent exposing GRB staff or asylum-seekers to health risks, the GRB temporarily suspended RSD procedures on 15 March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, while it explored ways to ensure continuity of its services.
In early May 2020, the GRB, supported by UNHCR, introduced virtual RSD procedures to ensure continuation of asylum processing and enable the GRB to continue to serve asylum-seekers and refugees during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under these new procedures, asylum interviews are all scheduled and communicated virtually or via phone call to the applicants. Asylum applicants are given different options to attend interviews, that are conducted using either Zoom or Microsoft Teams platforms:
(1) Virtual: both interviewer and applicant are physically present at the GRB office premises but seated in separate rooms and communicate virtually.
(2) Remote: the interviewer or applicant are not physically present at the GRB office premise (e.g. GBR staff working from home and/or asylum-seeker participating from home).
The flexibility of having two approaches ensures that those asylum-seekers who do not have access to a safe space or reliable internet connectivity can still participate in the interview process. At the same time, when remote interviews are possible, it minimizes unnecessary travel to the GRB Secretariat office and exposure to health risks.
Despite the virtual set up, there have been instances where, due to disruptions in internet connectivity, interviews must be conducted in-person. In order to ensure adequate social distancing, in these situations the GRB conference room is used instead of the regular interview facilities, as it is more spacious and well-ventilated. In addition, both the interviewer and the interviewee wear face masks in any in-person interaction. When interpreters are required in the interview process, it is ensured that they also adhere strictly to the Covid-19 safety protocols.
In addition to the virtual interviews, the GRB moved its in-person deliberation sessions online and held three virtual meetings in July, November and December 2020 to adjudicate asylum applications.
In parallel with the virtual RSD procedures, the GRB also introduced alternative arrangements that allow asylum-seekers and refugees to make requests for issuance or renewal of their documents remotely. Previously, asylum-seekers had to be physically present at the GRB office to make such requests and then go through a waiting period before documents were issued. The new procedures allow asylum-seekers to make requests for documentation in a variety of ways including the GRB website, phone calls, emails and via community groups/platforms. Once the document is ready, it is picked up in person at the GRB office premises, where health protocols are in place.
The innovations implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic have ensured continuity of asylum procedures as well as reduced delays in case processing and issuance of documents. As a result, asylum-seekers and refugees with documents have been able to enrol in the National Health Insurance Scheme and other essential services more quickly.
The use of virtual RSD procedures has prevented backlog accumulation. It has also helped to reduce existing backlogs as eligibility officers have the flexibility to work remotely and, in some cases, have been able to increase the number of interviews that they conduct each week.
As the pandemic lingers, the implementation of virtual RSD procedures to ensure continuity is increasingly important, however, its implementation has not been without challenges. For instance, whenever there is a Covid-19 case reported at the GRB Secretariat, the office has to be closed immediately and the staff are required to self-isolate for 14 days. This has affected the timely delivery of services to asylum-seekers and refugees especially cases when applicants choose to have their RSD Interview at the GRB office premises.
The GRB continues to implement virtual RSD procedures as it has allowed for case processing to continue in Ghana efficiently without compromising on the quality and outcome of the interviews. Moving forward, the GRB together with UNHCR, will look into having aspects of this good practice incorporated into its organizational human resource manuals, so that it is institutionalised for appropriate cases and made available to staff even after the current Covid-19 pandemic situation ends.