Blog post by Dr Claire Walkey. Claire holds a PhD in International Development from Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford and is currently a Researcher at University of Huddersfield.

Refugee registration has received very little academic attention – indeed, it feels almost altogether forgotten. This is because registration is often seen as the standardised, mundane and even boring process of simply collecting information from refugees, such as their name, date of birth, family composition etc. Discussions about refugee status determination (RSD) often make no mention of registration; UNHCR’s Handbook for Registration describes RSD and registration as ‘distinct processes’.

Registration can however play a complex and varied role in the recognition of refugees and thus raises crucial protection issues. This blog explores three ways in which registration relates to RSD.   

Firstly, there are certain formal or standardised links between registration and RSD. Registration is often the first step in the RSD process because individuals must be identified by the host government or UNHCR before RSD can take place. Moreover, registration, as defined by UNHCR, should provide some form of documentation granting legal status while an individual awaits RSD. Registration and RSD can also be even more closely linked in the case of ‘merged registration-RSD’. UNHCR uses this term to refer to instances when one extended interview is used to both register and recognise a refugee, typically on a prima facie basis. Registration can also link to RSD as information collected during the registration interview can be used during RSD; my discussions with UNHCR and government RSD staff in Kenya showed that this information was used to corroborate or contradict claims made by the asylum-seeker during their RSD interview and thus assessments about if refugee status should be granted. 

The formal link between registration and RSD can also be more complex in practice. My research in Kenya showed that refugees can face challenges accessing registration which, in turn, restricts their access to RSD. Up until 2017, individuals were required to register with the government before they were allowed to register with UNHCR and undergo RSD. Many refugees reported challenges registering with the government because of operational backlogs and delays. These challenges were compounded by the periodic suspension of registration by the government – a response to insecurity incidents that were blamed on refugees. At times of suspension, RSD continued for those already registered but was denied to those unable to register. Therefore, in some situations, the ability to register as a refugee, can determine access to RSD.   

Secondly, registration (under slightly different names) can sometimes offer a form of protection when formal status through RSD is unavailable. In Lebanon, Janmyr, notes that demands by the Lebanese Government for UNHCR to suspend registration meant UNHCR resorted instead to ‘recording’ individual refugees. This involved collecting only basic biographical and biometric information in UNHCR’s Refugee Assistance Information System database. One government official estimated that UNHCR had recorded approximately 40,000 Syrians by June 2016. Janmyr shows that, while recording was ostensibly done only for assistance purposes, it included access to protection and possibly resettlement. Recorded refugees would not however receive a UNHCR certificate and thus struggled to prove their legal residency in Lebanon.

Similarly, in Kenya, since 2016, the central government suspended all registration of Somalis, as part of its efforts to return refugees to Somalia. Despite this, UNHCR, in tacit cooperation with the government’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat, ‘profiled’ several thousand newly arrived refugees from Somalia. Profiling involved taking very limited information, which was not entered into the main registration database. Being profiled did not offer any legal status but the most vulnerable were given financial assistance by UNHCR. The example of Lebanon and Kenya show the varied forms registration, an ostensibly standardised practice, can take in different contexts. Importantly, it also shows that such practices can offer asylum-seekers a limited form of protection and assistance when no other form of refugee recognition is available.

Thirdly, registration is linked to RSD as it can determine where an individual can claim asylum. Perhaps the most well-known instance is registration on the European Union’s (EU) EURODAC biometric database. This database enforces the ‘Dublin System’ that individuals arriving in an EU country must claim asylum there and not transit onto a second country within the EU. This system is enforced through fingerprinting, which can accurately identify an asylum-seeker and mean they are returned to the country of first entry. While in theory, the legal requirement to remain in the EU country of first entry should not impact an asylum-seekers’ ability to be recognised as a refugee, RSD processes vary considerably between EU countries. For example, positive first instance decisions in 2019 were 66.2% in Spain, 53.1% in Greece and 52.0% in Denmark, compared to 19.7% in Italy and 8.5% in Hungary.  For this reason, as well as other perceptions about the treatment of refugees, some individuals seek to avoid underdoing RSD in the country of first entry but are unable to because of registration regulations.

Registration is therefore not simply collecting information: it has a significant role in how, when and where refugees are recognised. Registration needs significantly more detailed empirical assessment by researchers and advocates in order to better understand and document the realities of registration on the ground. This will facilitate greater scrutiny about the impact registration has on RSD. These may be negative impacts, such as restricting access to RSD altogether or in the chosen country of recognition, but also positive, through its adaptation by UNHCR to offer some form of assistance when political realities leave few other options. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.