Country Information: unreliable evidence

News

“totally lacking credibility … an undergraduate would be failed for this sort of thing.”

An independent inspector’s report has criticised the use of country information by the UK Home Office in asylum applications.

The comments were made in a damning review of the current country information used by the Home Office to make decisions on Eritrean asylum applications. The investigation found the Home Office to be using misleading and biased information, and distorting evidence to make it easier to reject Eritrean claims.

The review was carried out by Dr John Campbell for the Independent Advisory Group on Country Information (IAGCI), which operates under the authority of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.  This works to ensure independent scrutiny of the UK’s border and immigration functions.

Read the report (pdf)

Two Home Office country guidance documents were examined by the review. Since the documents were adopted in March last year, initial decisions for Eritreans seeking asylum dropped from a 73% approval rate to 34%. The guidance drew largely from a Danish research report which had already been disowned and discredited by seemingly every relevant authority apart from the UK Home Office.

Dr Campbell’s remarks have trashed all credibility for the Home Office guidance, finding that the documents are “completely divorced from relevant objective evidence”.

Life or death decisions that are being made on the basis of guidance “totally lacking credibility … an undergraduate would be failed for this sort of thing.”

Establishing objective country of origin information (COI) for refugee determination is not a straightforward task. The European Asylum Support Organization, which is concerned about the quality and reliability of COI in Refugee Status Determination in Europe, identify the following criteria as essential for COI: neutrality and objectivity, usability, validity, transparency and publicity, and quality control.

Dr Campbell notes that, since it was established in the late 1990s, the Country of Origin Information Unit in the UK Home Office has often been heavily criticised on methodological grounds and for potential political bias because they were perceived to reflect political concerns rather than merely provide accurate data and information on a specific country.

When determining an asylum application, Home Office decision-makers would refer to the COI reports from the Country Guidance Unit, and to Operational Guidance Notes from the Policy Unit. Having a clear distinction between these two very different guiding documents was key to a good “product” in country information. In 2008 the two units were merged, and Country Information and Guidance reports have increasingly blurred the distinction between objective evidence and Home Office policy.  This undermines the standing and reliability of British COI reports used in Refugee Status Determination.  The report states that this “blurring of policy and ‘facts’ is clearly evident in current Home Office policy on Eritrea.”

It is also a great concern for asylum applicants from other countries. The Home Office merged a unit tasked with finding neutral, objective evidence for refugee applications, with a unit which aims to control (prevent) immigration.

Even before this merger there have been consistent complaints about the misuse of COI. See for example this 2013 research by Amnesty International, which found that asylum decision-makers were misusing COI to undermine the credibility of applicants, and refuse their asylum claims, and the many commentaries on COI published by Still Human Still Here.

People with serious and urgent protection needs are being refused their right of sanctuary, held in detention centres, and deported to situations of war, imprisonment, torture, death.

Yet again, this report finds that the Home Office “does not conform to the professional standards which country information reports are expected to meet. Instead it is based on a highly selective use of information and it deliberately distorts information to support its own conclusions”.

The report concludes that the Eritrean guidance must be completely re-written. But this still leaves us with the problem of the systemic misuse of country information and guidance by the Home Office. The system is rotten, and needs to be completely overhauled if we are to have neutrality and objectivity, usability, validity, transparency and publicity, and quality control.

Until that happens, the message is clear – country information in UK asylum determinations cannot be trusted. Lawyers, asylum applicants and supporters can and should examine and challenge the evidence used to refuse asylum applications. For tips on how to go about this, see the Right to Remain Toolkit.



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