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Fundamental problems with asylum country of origin information, Chief Inspector Bolt finds

Fundamental problems with asylum country of origin information, Chief Inspector Bolt finds

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has urged the Home Office to fundamentally overhaul the country of origin information it gives to officials making asylum decisions.

David Bolt’s latest report, published today, says that the department “needs to examine whether the current format and contents of [Country Policy and Information Notes] are consistent with the UK’s obligations to refugees”.

The report details a host of problems with country of origin notes in their current form. In particular, Mr Bolt says that the notes blend fact with advice to the extent that officials are not able to “reach their own objective judgements and decisions on individual applications”. The former spy, in post as Chief Inspector since 2015, writes that:

As their title implies, Country Policy and Information Notes (CPINs) combine country information and “Policy”. This is wrong in principle and, whatever the intention, the effect is to direct the user towards a predetermined outcome, particularly where a significant body of asylum decision makers are inexperienced, unfamiliar with COI, have insufficient time to master every detail, and are likely to interpret anything labelled “Policy” as something they are required to follow.

Later, Mr Bolt charges that the Home Office “confuses process with product… all of the selected information points to the policy conclusions, and therefore has the effect of validating them, while the importance of the de-selected information is inevitably diminished”.

Concern that Home Office information inappropriately mixes policy instructions with statements of objective fact is not new. A Home Office report from as far back as 2001 recommended a “clear separation” between country of origin information on the one hand, and policy and guidance on the other. The theme was also picked up by Mr Bolt’s predecessor, John Vine, in a 2011 report. His recommendation on separating the two was rejected. Indeed, in 2014 the policy and information functions were merged (both are now produced by the Country Policy and Information Team).

Today’s report also bemoans “aggressive cost-cutting” that saw this team’s headcount reduced by a third. Cutbacks have likewise affected the researchers’ access to basic sources of country information:

due to a combination of factors including the costs, they no longer had access to certain resources such as Reuters, Africa Confidential and (part of) allAfrica.com. CPIT has only one remaining subscription which it is considering renewing. Country Officers’ access to expert academic reports was also limited as these usually required a subscription.

Under these conditions, the embattled researchers are expected to produce or update between 100 and 120 Country Policy and Information Notes a year, and field around 1,000 requests for specific information. This activity, Bolt says,

is not enough to meet CPIT’s own target of updating all CPINs when or before they are 2 years old, nor does it meet customer demand, as evidenced by the extent of largely unsupervised (and unknown to CPIT) research carried out independently by decision makers, unable to find the answers they need in existing COI products.

Among the worrying practices uncovered by inspectors were:

  • The Country Policy and Information Note for Albania referencing a book written in 1992
  • A decision-maker on an Iranian asylum claim quoting online sources from between 1991 and 2011
  • A decision-maker on an Albanian asylum claim using unreferenced country information dating from between 2008 and 2011
  • A decision-maker using an educational website for children to source “pub quiz” questions about Christianity
  • A decision-maker on a Malaysian lesbian’s asylum claim carrying out their own research on gay travel sites gaytimes.co.uk and gayhomestays.com
  • A decision-maker relying on country information “relating to the conditions for gay men in Algeria to decide the claim of a lesbian claimant”

In summary, Mr Bolt said that decision-makers “appeared to have no clear understanding of what constituted ‘reliable and up-to-date information’ as required by the Immigration Rules”.

It also emerged that Home Office presenting officers were as outraged as anyone else about the Eritrean country advice saga (see Nick’s piece on the subject). Officials said that the official line on conditions in that country was “embarrassing… basically undefendable… agonising to deal with Eritrea cases… cherry-picked and flawed information… we are told to argue ‘black is white’ to remove people”.

The report contains seven recommendations, of which the Home Office has accepted four in full and one in part. One of the rejections stands out:

We do not accept the contention that the Country Policy and Information Team (CPIT) should not produce ‘policy’ guidance alongside its COI products. It is common practice to produce an analysis of the COI (whether this is called analysis, policy, guidance or a country position), to help hard-pressed caseworkers draw appropriate conclusions from the COI, while respecting that ultimately it is for them to adapt the COI material to the facts of the case before them.

Two other Chief Inspector’s reports were also published today, of which more soon.

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