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Monday, 25 January 2010

The Refugee Roulette: The Role of Country Information in Refugee Status Determination

Wheel of fortune. Shot wide open using 50mm/f1.
Source: Immigration Advisory Service

'Country information has got to be more at the forefront than it is. There must be awareness that these are political decisions' - Legal representative.

Country of origin information (COI) is an important part of the refugee status determination process. It assists decision makers to assess the credibility of accounts and the risk upon return against background evidence that details the conditions in the country of origin.

If legal representatives, advisors or decision-makers are unable properly to access, understand and utilise country information, they cannot provide quality advice and representation to asylum seekers or make proper decisions.

This report explores how individuals from four stakeholder groups use country information and what factors impact on their level of use, using data from 100 questionnaires, 20 interviews and 6 focus groups. Information was gathered from UK Borders Agency (UKBA) staff, legal representatives, immigration judges and experts.

Overall, insufficient usage of country of origin information is reported to be commonplace, particularly at the initial decision making phase, despite improvements under the New Asylum Model (NAM). The way country information is used was observed to be different within each of the stakeholder groups, due to differential levels of knowledge, application and analysis of the information.

Improvements in using country of origin information would result in better decision-making. However, what is also required is a shift in the culture within the refugee status determination process amongst all players and across adversarial boundaries. This entails a re-statement of commitment to asylum seekers and the humanitarian principles upon which the Refugee Convention was founded, as well as recognition of the deeper problems affecting the system. More time, resources, training and funding are essential for people to conduct effective country research and analysis upon which sound decisions can be made. This commitment should also be reflected in heightened transparency and accountability in both information production and usage. Thus, for real improvement to take place, political will from the government to commit resources to refugee status determination is fundamental.

This report shows the value of country of origin research in determining individual asylum claims and will assist in promoting a more rigorous asylum determination system. We are proud to be able to release this report, part of a long tradition of excellent research produced by the Research, Information and Policy Unit of the IAS. John Scampion CBE, Chair of the Trustees, Immigration Advisory Service
Background note
This publication forms part of an 18-month project that was funded by the Big Lottery Fund and undertaken by Natasha Tsangarides of the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS). The project sought to improve the use of, access to, and understanding of country of origin information in the refugee status determination process.

The report's introduction

Country of origin information (COI) is an integral part of asylum decision-making in the UK at all stages of the refugee status determination (RSD) process. COI details the social, political, judicial and human rights profile of a given country. This information is used within asylum decision-making to assess the risk upon return for individuals to their country of origin as well as the credibility and plausibility of individual claims. COI enables decision-makers to assess if an asylum seeker's subjective fear is based on objectively adverse circumstances, and therefore whether an asylum claim is 'well-founded'.

The need for country of origin information within RSD is explicitly stated in the UNHCR Handbook thus:  'As regards the objective element, it is necessary to evaluate the statements made by the applicant. The competent authorities that are called upon to determine refugee status are not required to pass judgment on conditions in the applicant's country of origin. The applicant's statements cannot, however, be considered in the abstract, and must be viewed in the context of the relevant background situation'. The legislative and policy framework underlining the use and importance of COI are also outlined in the UK Home Office policy instructions as well within the EU Qualification and Procedures Directives.

COI material consists of a variety of sources including reports produced by experts, news services, Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and government bodies, including the UKBA's COIS reports. Reported case law and Country Guidance (CG) cases also contain guidance, assessments and sources of COI. Operational Guidance Notes (OGNs) are Home Office policy documents and provide country specific guidance to case owners on particular asylum seeking groups. Whilst these contain COI, its content is not monitored by an independent monitoring body and is arguably selected on the basis of policy considerations.

Within the RSD process, a number of stakeholders use COI, namely Immigration Judges, UKBA caseowners/caseworkers, Home Office Presenting Officers (HOPOs), legal representatives, experts and unrepresented asylum seekers.

Asylum applications are assessed by the Home Office and the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT), against the relevant background information on the country from where the claimant fears persecution. In this way, decision makers are able to assess the credibility of claimants and their risk of persecution if returned to their country of origin and thereon whether the UK, in accordance with its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and Article 3 of the ECHR, should provide protection.

If legal representatives, advisors or decision-makers are unable to properly access, understand and utilize country information, they cannot provide quality advice and representation to asylum seekers or make adequate decisions.  Should the advice or representation given to asylum claimants be sub-standard or even erroneous, or if a wrong decision is made, the consequences for the individual could be significant. This might include enforced removal and ultimately return to a country where they could be at risk of persecution or death.

Despite the importance of COI within RSD, it remains relatively unexplored. Indeed, little has been done to interrogate how COI is used by practitioners or decision-makers. Attempts have been made to formulate criteria for the assessment of COI but there is little monitoring or regulation of the information being used. Part of the reason for this is because COI is a constructed field of knowledge that incorporates knowledge from a variety of disciplines and sources, which for the most part are not written with the RSD process in mind. This provokes tension because these diverse origins present divergent modes of thought, mandates, and approaches to information production. Subsequently, attempting to create and implement criteria for an ideal standard of COI is problematic. In turn, these factors further complicate its usage.

This report intends to explore how individuals from each of the stakeholder groups understand, approach and use COI. Based on the results from the data, a series of recommendations are proposed that intend to improve usage and ultimately contribute to a more rigorous determination system.

LGBT references

Page 92 - Information Producers

There is also a lack of communication between experts and other “information producers”, namely the UKBA [UK Border Agency] COIS [Country of Origin Information Service] department. The failure to take on board the lessons and sources of COI [Country of Origin Information] emerging from CG [country guidance] cases, is a point for grievance amongst some experts. This is particularly the case when so much time and resources have been put into proving a particular point in the COIS report is wrong or if the sources contained within it are “erroneous and misrepresenting”.

For example, in the Iran COIS report, there is a paragraph that talks about a park in Tehran where homosexuals can meet. This paragraph is regularly relied upon in RFRLs [Reason For Refusal Letter] in Iranian homosexuality cases to refuse a claim for protection. However, this same paragraph was thrashed out in CG cases with the translation of the Iranian law on homosexuality proven to be incorrect by the experts at the Tribunal. However, this point still has not been rectified and exists in the Iran COIS report of August 2009 in paragraph 21.46.

There is evidently a need for heightened communication between experts and the COIS department in order to ensure that the best possible information sources are incorporated and reflected in the reports. Furthermore, the results proposed a “feedback loop” from CG findings into the COIS reports, when a piece of information has been found to be clearly wrong or out of date. Taken further, COIS reports would benefit from attending all CG hearings, listening to the expert comments, making direct links with country experts and widening their source bases in order to strengthen their reports.

Page 105 - Amongst recommendations for Training Needs Identified for UKBA Asylum Staff:

Research skills
  • Thematic research and knowledge, for example, claims involving trafficking, children and sexuality 
General
  • Cultural competency training
Page 112 - Amongst recommendations from COI Professionals:
  • Thematic COI production: Internal armed conflict; internal flight alternative; LGBT issues; and trafficking are all pressing issues where thematic research would be welcomed  
  • Specific research for claims involving gender, minors, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and trafficking

The Refugee Roulette
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