IILJ Working Paper 2005/12 (Global Administrative Law Series)

The Operation of UNHCR’s Accountability Mechanisms

Mark Pallis

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The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to provide protection to the worlds’ refugees. Amongst its activities, it decides who is entitled to protection and runs refugee camps. These take place on a massive scale and affect the lives of millions: UNHCR single-handedly conducts refugee status determination in 80 countries worldwide and during 2004 it had at least 75,000 asylum applications to deal with, making it the largest single status determination body in the world. In 2002 the total number of people in camps administered by UNHCR was well over four million, with UNHCR exercising or superintending many administrative, judicial, or quasi-judicial powers in these camps. Its work has helped millions. But during refugee status determination, appeal rights and other elements of due process are often limited, and in UNHCR camps, numerous violations of the human rights of refugees have occurred, including sexual abuses, collective punishments, inhuman or degrading treatment, and coercive limits on freedom of expression. This paper examines UNHCR’s existing accountability mechanisms and proposes substantial improvements, including a rights-based focus.