ENS: Ms. Ambrus, quality assurance in administrative proceedings, as well as dedicated statelessness determination procedures are new issues in Central Europe. Where did the idea come from to merge these two specific areas and to elaborate a statelessness determination mechanism in Hungary?
Ágnes Ambrus: The idea of combining quality assurance with stateless status determination is indeed unique. UNHCR and the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) successfully developed a quality assurance mechanism in the refugee status determination procedure in collaboration with the UK Border Agency in 2009-2010, which helped us a lot when we decided to incorporate our quality assurance visions into the QEDS project proposal.
It has to be mentioned also that the Hungarian government is an active partner in this initiative. The government made an official pledge at the UNHCR Ministerial Meeting in Geneva in December 2011 and offered to work together with UNHCR specifically on the quality assurance mechanism in order to improve the quality of statelessness determination. Both parties agreed on the need for such a system. In accordance with the pledge made, the UNHCR Regional Representation for Central Europe and the OIN concluded and implemented a formal cooperation agreement, which became effective in February 2012. The project ended at the end of September 2012.
ENS: What was the aim of the quality assurance project and how was it implemented?
Ágnes Ambrus: First of all, we had to conduct an analysis of practices in order to get an overview of the current state of statelessness decision making trends and divergences in the Regional Directorates’ practices. We assessed forty-two statelessness case files closed between September 2010 and December 2011. This mapping exercise enabled us to come up with practical recommendations aimed at improving decision making, and provided guidance for developing a criteria system, which consists of 43 quality criteria.
One of the main products of the project is a quality manual – the core document of the quality management system – which describes a pre-determined quality criteria system and provides support to case-workers in delivering consistent, high quality decisions. It furthermore provides a detailed description of the so-called “quality-audit mechanism”, which will be conducted together by UNHCR and the OIN, on a quarterly basis in the future.
ENS: Can you share some information about the Hungarian decision-making practice in statelessness status cases?
Ágnes Ambrus: As far as the sample of case files is concerned, they were selected by OIN and covered statelessness proceedings of 51 persons most of whom came from the former Soviet Union. But there were also sub-Saharan, Palestinian, Syrian Kurdish and Bidoon cases in the sample. The random sample was near gender balanced with 29 women and 22 men. In the sample, the time period between the submission of the application and the date of the administrative decision, was on average 153 days. The quickest case was closed in 25 days and the longest took 1048 days.
ENS: How did case workers react on the idea of a system designed to assess their work? Is quality control common in Hungarian public administration?
Ágnes Ambrus: No, not really, and therefore we put particular emphasis on the involvement of the case workers in the preparatory work. Accordingly, we had several meetings with the staff members of the Regional Directorates of OIN, so that they would understand the main message of the project, which is not about exercising control over them, but rather aimed at improving consistency and developing a more client-friendly environment for potentially stateless persons.
We shared all information about the findings of the case analysis and the planned quality management system with the case workers. In September, the first ever Statelessness Professional Development Day was organized for case workers in connection with the launch of the Quality Manual and the quality assurance system. Their reaction was very positive; they considered the Manual a helpful tool when processing statelessness applications.
ENS: Could you share some information with our blog readers about the Quality Manual?
Ágnes Ambrus: The Manual includes a quality policy statement issued by the Director General of the Office of Immigration and Nationality and six chapters covering the functioning of the quality management system. Four quality objectives have been set in the policy statement: Regular training for case workers; continuous quality audit of the closed procedures on a quarterly basis using the system of criteria established in the Manual; regular revision and further development of the quality audit mechanism in place; and strengthening the leading role of Hungary in the field of stateless protection by sharing the exemplary practice of this quality initiative.
The first chapter describes the nature and aim of the Manual, the second chapter provides an overview of the structure of the statelessness protection mechanism in Hungary. It contains reference to the effective international and national legal sources. One can get a snapshot on the QEDS project in the third chapter which provided the basis for the adopted quality criteria system. Chapter four contains the quality criteria system which can be used as a guiding tool for conducting a good quality statelessness determination procedure at first instance. There are 43 criteria assessed when conducting the quality audit. Each criterion has further sub-criteria which have to be fulfilled in order to meet the quality standard. Chapter five describes the quality audit mechanism which will be conducted on a quarterly basis and UNHCR Hungary will be acting as peer-auditor. The last chapter contains the revision and approval record table which has to be filled whenever any amendment is made in the Quality Manual. According to the current plans, the Manual will be available soon on the website of the OIN so that ENS blog readers can consult it, and hopefully other state authorities will be ready to adopt this quality assurance model as well.
The interview was made by Alajos Lángi on behalf of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the European Network on Statelessness. Ágnes Ambrus is National Legal Officer and Head of the UNHCR Hungary Unit. Ms. Ambrus has waorked with the UNHCR office in Hungary since 1994 and has special expertise in the field of statelessness.
 ASQAEM (Asylum Quality Assurance and Evaluation Mechanism) and the FDQ (Further Developing Quality) regional projects
 Example for a quality criterion: Quality, relevance, and logical sequence of questions at the preliminary hearing. This is fully met if 1) questions asked are relevant to the statelessness determination procedure; 2) each question relates to one piece of information; 3) it is consistently the interviewer who “directs” the preliminary hearing; 4) the last question asked is, “is there anything you would like to add?”; 5) if the services of an interpreter are used, the verification question “do you understand the interpreter properly?” is asked during the hearing. If the interview record complies with all requirements, then the auditor ticks the yes box next to this criterion on the quality audit sheet.
 Quality audit is an assessment process, in which auditors rate the quality of decision-making in light of its compliance with the system of criteria described in the Quality Manual.
 According to the law, the first-instance (administrative) statelessness determination shall be conducted within 2 months. The excessive length of certain procedures was due for example to the delayed answers of foreign authorities, as these proceedings were suspended until the answer was received.