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Largest Quality Improvement Project In EU Asylum History Reached Mid-term
Wednesday 22, April 2009
Vienna - The largest project UNHCR has ever carried out in Europe to improve first instance asylum decisions simultaneously in several countries has reached mid-term. During a workshop in Vienna in early May, evaluators from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia took stock of the progress achieved since September 2008.
The project, which is co-funded by the European Union takes a phased approach. For several months, evaluators listened in on interviews and analysed files to detect weaknesses in first instance decision making. Their findings were used to prepare recommendations tailor-made for each country. Those include hands-on measures with an immediate effect on the quality of the procedure, such as workshops, tutoring programmes, practical guidelines and checklists for the work of asylum officials.
"Governments do not always accept all our recommendations", said Michael Ross, a seasoned asylum judge from Canada who is heading the project, "but at least we have intensive and productive discussions over perceived shortcomings of the systems, and we discuss possible remedies."
A lot has been achieved in the first eight months of the project. During the Vienna conference, both UNHCR evaluators and authorities recognised the uplifting effect the Quality Initiative is already having in all countries involved.
As part of the project Sebastiaan de Groot, President of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges, has been invited to act as an outside evaluator. Mr. de Groot attended the workshop and acknowledged the enthusiasm of the national evaluators and the positive and deep involvement of all the participants. He commented that the workshop was a fine achievement and provided a good basis to build further upon.
For the remaining nine months, while the primary emphasis will continue to be on the first instance, and the project will also broaden to include second instance decision making.
The project has a duration of eighteen months and has a budget of EUR 500,000, co-funded by the European Union and UNHCR.
Three shortcomings All Over Central Europe
The findings of the national evaluators differ from country to country, but some patterns were present in all countries.
The problems detected in the different countries vary considerably, but three problems have been detected everywhere:
There is an urgent need to prepare simplified legal information in the languages of the asylum seekers who often do not understand the complexities of EU asylum law and its implications for their own future.
Systems, originally created to process adult asylum seekers, have to adapt to the specific needs of a growing number of unaccompanied minors seeking protection in the EU.
More attention needs to be paid to interpretation services. The assessment showed that interpreters do not merely have a supportive role at the margins of the asylum system - their professional standard is of key importance to the quality of the entire procedure as they are the verbal link between asylum seeker and adjudicator.
Initially, asylum officers were apprehensive as evaluators shadowed their interviews and reviewed their files. Attitudes changed over time as the adjudicators realised that the evaluators are not simply auditors but fellow experts whose advice is constructive and helpful. After many individual discussions and a number of workshops, the national evaluators were able to report that initial apprehension has given way to a collaborative and friendly approach. "Now they even call me if they have questions," one national evaluator said.
Improvements Taking Effect Instantaneously
The findings of the ASQAEM project (Asylum System Quality Assurance and Evaluation Mechanism) are based on an enormous amount of analytical work. For example, in Slovakia alone, over 120 interviews were monitored, 400 decisions were analysed and 100 files reviewed. Using the findings as a basis, a successful conference with all adjudicators in Slovakia was held in early March.
In Poland, the national evaluator, working with the Polish government, has already had three training seminars on a variety of issues. Recommendations presented are thoroughly discussed with government counterparts and then presented to staff during a question and answer session. To date, the Polish government has accepted all the recommendations made by the national evaluator.
In Austria, special emphasis is being given to unaccompanied minors in the first instance. The Federal Asylum Agency requests real time feedback on gaps and acts quickly to fix any spotted.
A tutorship program has been initiated in Romania, where the most practiced adjudicators guide their less experienced colleagues through the decision-making process. The national evaluator, working together with her Romanian government colleagues, put on a seminar on quality adjudication in April.
In Bulgaria, it is expected that the first training in June will have an immediate positive effect on the quality of the adjudicators' work.
Training guardians of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers on legal issues, on the situation on the countries of origin of the minors and on intercultural communication skills is a core recommendation of the national evaluator in Hungary.
In Slovenia, the roll out of the Quality Initiative was somewhat delayed due to staff changes, but the project is catching up fast, given that the Government is cooperative and interested to see results soon.
In Germany, emphasis is, once again, on the growing number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the country. The national evaluator, in concert with her counterpart in the German Quality Assurance Unit, work together to provide innovative approaches to interviewing unaccompanied minors. In one such project they invited former minors to provide their feedback to decision makers which were enormously successful from everyone's viewpoint.
"The beauty of ASQAEM" says Michael Ross, "lies in its diversity. While the same methodology and fundamental principles of fairness are in play throughout the region, these are applied in different ways in very different countries with excellent results".
The parties to the project will continue to work closely together toward their common end of providing a quality-driven refugee decision making process.
By Melita H. Šunjić
UNHCR Regional Representation