Establishing a Relationship with UNHCR

Establishing a relationship with your local UNHCR office is an important aspect of entering the local refugee rights landscape. Although this relationship may be tricky, it is very important that you continuously work on developing and maintaining strong relationships. This allows you to maintain access, and to utilize the opportunity to engage UNHCR as an advocacy partner. This section is designed to help you navigate strategies to reach out to, and foster relationships with (1) UNHCR and (2) UNHCR’s implementing partners.

Understanding UNHCR’s work in your country

To begin, it is advisable to familiarize yourself with UNHCR’s operations, including its size, projects and priorities in your country. This knowledge will help you approach relationship building. By understanding UNHCR’s needs and challenges, it could help you better position and frame your organization in a manner that can fill UNHCR’s gap, or be complementary to its work.

Depending on whether it is the government or UNHCR that conducts refugee status determination (RSD) in your country, your relationship with UNHCR is likely to vary greatly. If the former, the Agency’s policy advocacy goals may be similar to yours, and is generally collaborative with refugee advocates. In these instances, direct representation, community legal empowerment services, and even strategic litigation plans welcomed. For example, UNHCR recently submitted its own amicus curiae brief to the Kenyan Supreme Court in support of a human rights NGO’s impact litigation case on the potential refoulement of Somalis refugees.

Once you have done your research, reaching out to the UNHCR Country Representative and/or Protection Officer to explain your mission is a logical first step. Sometimes, building relationships with lower level staff (and staff from other departments other than RSD) can also be helpful to get insight on certain processes in UNHCR.

Practical advice on assisting UNHCR’s RSD process

It is generally accepted that UNHCR allows representation of clients: the right to legal counsel is provided for in UNHCR’s Procedural Standards under paragraph 4.3.3. Where UNHCR offices are prepared to conduct RSD for refugees with legal representatives, they may wish to work under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the legal aid organization and the Agency. The MOU is an agreement that typically outlines the established ways of working between two or more partners. If relations are likely to be more productive with an MOU, a sample document employed by Asylum Access in Thailand can be used for guidance.

You may also wish to draw attention to the UNHCR-endorsed Nairobi Code. This governs the activities of subscribing legal aid providers. It is advisable, for the growth of an ethical legal aid movement, for the Nairobi Code to be mainstreamed as a regulatory set of ethical standards among refugee rights organizations, and its use should therefore be suggested before drawing up an MOU.

Yet, although the UNHCR Procedural Standards or the Nairobi Code allow for the representation of clients, this does not always happen in practice. Some UNHCR offices may be reluctant to allow you to be present in interviews, or take issue with some aspect of legal representation. Further details on how the right to counsel has been denied in some countries is documented by RSD Watch.

Your relationship with UNHCR can be tricky as it might not be immediately apparent what the benefits of legal aid are to the UNHCR process. In countries where access to UNHCR or to the governments is limited, you may need to be creative in your strategies. This could include:

  •  Working as a professional interpreter in UNHCR/the government’s RSD interviews, especially when UNHCR/the government is  reluctant to permit an external party to be present during the RSD interviews. In countries where professional interpreters are rare, you can be an invaluable asset to UNHCR/the government. However, while you will learn more about the RSD interviews, you will not be able to openly publish your observations. Nevertheless, this information can allow you to better assist clients in preparing for interviews, and in developing an interview guide for your clients.
  • Seek permission to observe RSD interviews. In this case, it is advisable to frame your working relationship as collaborative. Rather than to claim that you are monitoring the work of UNHCR/the government, you may highlight that observing interviews would help you gain a better understanding of the interview process in order to improve your organization’s ability to prepare clients for the interviews.
  • Negotiate incremental access (e.g. submission of documents, representation of most vulnerable cases) until trust is built and they are confident of your organizations competence to participate in the process.

The downloadable document below outlines the benefits of legal aid during the RSD Process to the UNHCR Eligibility Officer (EO), to the RSD system, and to the refugee. These are important points that you may refer to when establishing your relationship with UNHCR.

Implementing Partners

UNHCR offices are frequently divided into ‘program’ and ‘protection’ departments. The program department often involves service delivery to refugees through other organizations known as implementing partners (IPs).

UNHCR’s Implementing partners – usually NGOs – may also be invaluable contacts, particularly in the start-up stage when referrals should be encouraged. Establishing relationships with UNHCR’s IPs may lead to further insight into the state of refugee rights in your context. Services IPs tend to offer assistance in education and healthcare. If your organization plans to look beyond access to asylum and wish to address refugees’ human rights, these may be useful contacts.

While more than 75% of IPs are local partners, some international IPs include:

  • International Rescue Committee
  • CARE International Belgium
  • Oxfam
  • MSF Belgium
  • MSF France
  • Lutheran World Federation
  • Adventist Development and Relief Agency
  • CARE Canada
  • Norwegian Refugee Council
  • Save the Children Federation UK
  • Danish Refugee Council
  • CONCERN Ireland

For more details on establishing relationships with NGOs, you may refer to the Establishing relationships with NGOs and Other Partners page.

Further resources: