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FOCUS March 2016 Volume 83

Protecting Refugees and Country of Origin Information

Jefferson R. Plantilla

Recognition of refugee status requires proof of existence of persecution in the country of origin. How far can government refugee agencies access information from country of origin of applicants for refugee status that would entitle them to protection, including permission to stay safe, in the country fled to?

Proving Persecution
In accordance with international refugee law, States establish refugee status determination (RSD) procedures to determine the validity of claims for protection as refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has explained that1

The States must determine whether claims are well-founded, that is, sufficiently established on the facts or on the available evidence. The individual applicant's testimony is the primary consideration in reaching a decision, but [it] "cannot [...] be considered in the abstract, and must be viewed in the context of the relevant background situation.”

The so-called “country of origin information” or COI is meant to provide such “context of the relevant background situation.” There are several important aspects of “reliable, complete and up-to-date” COI in national RSD procedures, such as the following:2

1. It is “decisive in determining who is in need of international protection and should be accorded asylum and protection;”
2. It is also decisive in formulating “solution strategies, including plans for voluntary repatriation;”
3. It is “essential in the determination of whether and when to invoke the cessation of refugee status and concerning repatriation decisions;”
4. It is also essential in developing “preventive approaches aimed at removing or reducing the reasons for flight;” 5. It “facilitates the identification of those who do not require international protection;”
6. It “can assist in the development, in other fora, of an effective international response to general migration questions;”
7. Finally, it “plays a critical role in academic research and scholarship.”

Compiling COI in Practice
The compilation of COI is not an easy task for people who hardly know the countries, much less the concrete situation of particular areas within the countries, of applicants for refugee status. In some countries, the compilation of COI is done by a government agency established for that specific purpose.

COI is drawn from various sources including information from the United Nations (such as online documents available in RefWorld), human rights organizations, and government-supported institutions.

To ensure reliable COI, there are quality standards that have been used such as the following:3
a. Relevance - it is “based on questions rooted in legal concepts of refugee and human rights law or on questions derived from an applicant’s statements;”
b. Reliability and balance - as “each source has its own perspective and focus, different sources and different types of sources should be consulted to achieve the most comprehensive and balanced picture possible;”
c. Accuracy and currency – “Only information that is correct and valid at the time a decision is made should be used. Accuracy and currency can be achieved by cross-checking and corroborating information;”
d. Transparency and traceability – “To ensure transparency, COI should be fully referenced to enable readers to independently verify and assess the information. Every piece of information should be traceable to its source. Information should be clearly presented and its meaning must not be distorted.”

There are also principles for researching and using COI:4
a. Neutrality and impartiality - COI research should be conducted in a neutral manner with regard to the outcome;
b. Equality of arms regarding access to information - COI should be equally available to all decision-making bodies and to legal advisors of applicants in procedures for persons seeking international protection. Applicants must have access to the information a decision is based on, so that they may comment on it;
c. Using public information - To support fair procedures, publicly available information should be used. Public information is open to review and scrutiny by the applicant, experts and the public at large;
d. Data protection - The personal data of a claimant and information that potentially may make the claimant identifiable must be protected and should never - directly or indirectly - be shared with the alleged persecutor.

However, there are limits on the use of the COI, as listed by a practitioner:5 a. COI cannot compensate for a poor interview.
b. COI cannot replace a thorough legal analysis of the case.
c. COI can usually not tell you details about the life of an applicant, especially not whether he/she tells you the truth.
d. COI cannot replace the assessment of the individual risk of the applicant!
 COI has supplementary character ... it can only supplement, not replace, a credible statement of facts by the applicant!

Nevertheless, a government official deciding on the application for refugee status would have a better chance of making a fair judgment by considering the context of the application through COI.

Use of COI in Asia-Pacific
Government-supported agencies for COI research do not seem to exist in many countries in Asia-Pacific with high-volume of refugee status applicants. New Zealand, on the other hand, has an office that research on COI.

New Zealand’s compliance with its obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is facilitated by the Immigration Act 2009. The Refugee Status Branch (under the Immigration New Zealand) and the Immigration and Protection Tribunal decide on the application for recognition of refugee status using this law.

The Country Research Branch of New Zealand is a6
 research unit within Immigration New Zealand (INZ) (part of the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment) that provides COI research to INZ decision-makers, particularly in the protection and risk areas. CRB also provides a research service to members of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal (IPT).

Under the New Zealand system,
 Country of Origin Information (COI) research is used by decision makers and legal advisers to aid in the answering of questions about the political, social, cultural, economic and human rights situations in countries of origin. The Country Research Branch is responsible for the provision of COI to Immigration New Zealand and the Immigration Protection Tribunal within the Ministry of Justice.

To the government official deciding on the application for recognition of refugee status, the COI is meant “to inform, not to determine, the outcome.” Such officer must be “vigilant in ensuring that the COI is relevant and reliable,” and share it with the claimant and provide a meaningful opportunity to respond.”7

The Country Research Branch produces8
a. Monthly e-bulletin which provides an “update on our current research statistics as well as links to events, news and reports relating to the work of our team. Whilst primarily targeting internal customer groups we also circulate this publicly and welcome new subscribers at any time.”
b. Country Information Packs about the “political, social, cultural, economic and human rights situations in countries of interest. These provide useful preliminary background information for decision makers and advocates in asylum claims (refugee and protection officers, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, lawyers, licenced immigration advisors and asylum seekers). They are also made available to other government agencies.”

Making the COI more easily and widely accessible increases the frequency of its use by all parties concerned – government officials who decide on refugee status application and the applicants themselves.

Protection as the Goal
 Country of Origin Information (COI) is used in procedures for persons seeking international protection.9

In the first conference of the Asian Network on Refugees and International Protection (ANRIP) with the theme “Refugees and Other International Protection in Asia: Some Essentials and Comparatives” (28 - 29 January 2016, Tagaytay city), the participants (consisting of immigration officials, academics, and non-governmental organization workers) discussed the crucial link between COI and the protection of people fleeing persecution. The conference participants reviewed the experiences of the Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) and the Country Research Branch of the Ministry of Justice in New Zealand in supporting the processing of refugee status applications. The discussions among the conference participants revealed the need for greater understanding and use of COI in the Asian region. Indeed, pursuing “future collaboration and cooperation in order to enhance and improve COI in Asia”10 is important to enable more governments to protect persecuted people reaching their borders.

The author is the Chief Researcher of HURIGHTS OSAKA.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Endnotes
 1 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Country of Origin Information: Towards Enhanced International Cooperation, February 2004, available at: www.refworld.org/docid/403b2522a.html [accessed 10 March 2016]
 2 Ibid.
 3 These standards are from a training manual entitled Researching Country of Origin Information published by the   Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation (ACCORD) in 2013, pages 31-34.
 4 Ibid., pages 36-38.
 5 Andrea Jakober, “COI Quality Control,” powerpoint presentation at the ANRIP Conference, Tagaytay city, 29 January 2016.
 6 Guide to online Country Of Origin (COI) online sources, www.immigration.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/4522B068-5071-4A8E-B6D9-85E44F983BE5/0/guidecoisourcesonline.pdf.
 7 Martin Treadwell, “Country of Origin Information in the Hands of the Decision-Maker,” powerpoint presentation at the ANRIP Conference, Tagaytay city, 28-29 January 2016.
 8 For examples of Country Research Branch Bulletin and Country Information Packs, visit Country of Origin Information (COI) Research, www.immigration.govt.nz/migrant/general/generalinformation/refugee-protection/COIresearch/default.htm.
 9 Researching Country of Origin Information, op. cit., page 6.
 10 Hiroshi Miyauchi, The Aims and Purposes of ANRIP and the Conference, presented at the ANRIP conference.
 


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