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Features - Guide to Country Research for Refugee Status Determination

By Elisa Mason, Published on February 15, 2001

The most recent version of this article is available at http://www.llrx.com/features/rsd2.htm. You will be automatically redirected to that page shortly.

Elisa Mason is the newly appointed information officer for the Forced Migration Portal Project (http://www.forcedmigration.org/portal/home/homepage.htm) at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. This article was prepared while she was working as an independent refugee information specialist and does not necessarily reflect the views of her current employer. The author is grateful to Courtney Mireille O'Connor for her invaluable input into early drafts of this paper.

[Editor's Note: This article has a companion, Annex: Human Rights, Country and Legal Information Resources on the Internet, by the same author, published on February 15, 2001]


Summary

The purpose of this guide is to supplement the legal analysis integral to refugee status determination (RSD) with a review of the mechanics of country research. The Internet has made a variety of human rights resources more easily accessible; however, undertaking country research online comes with its own unique set of challenges. This guide provides more focused recommendations for retrieving and applying country and human rights information as a means to enhance refugee protection.

Introduction

Consulting country information contributes to the refugee status determination (RSD) process in many ways, whether it is conducted for individuals or groups; by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or by governments; on the basis of the refugee definition contained in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention governing Specific Aspects of the Refugee Problem in Africa, or the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. For example:

  1. Individual Status Determination: While the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter Handbook) notes that an individual applicant’s testimony should normally be sufficient for reaching a decision,”[t]he applicant’s statements cannot…be considered in the abstract, and must be viewed in the context of the relevant background situation. A knowledge of conditions in the applicant’s country of origin – while not a primary objective – is an important element in assessing the applicant’s credibility” (UNHCR 1992, para. 42). Thus, the results of country research can help verify an applicant’s claim by providing objective background on her testimony; they can also provide the decision maker with a basis for asking more knowledgeable or pointed questions if an applicant’s testimony appears inconsistent or unclear.

  2. Group Determination: Country conditions can also help to establish the “objective circumstances” which produce mass exodus situations, and for which prima facie or group determination is normally conducted. Of particular relevance are sources of information relating to civil strife or other disturbances as enumerated in the broader OAU and Cartagena definitions. Given the sense of urgency which characterizes such situations, rapid access to relevant information is essential for the decision making process.

  3. In addition, country research may be necessary when evaluating possibilities for internal flight alternatives, safe country of origin/asylum, and application of the cessation clause based on “ceased” circumstances.

But recognizing the value of country research is one thing; undertaking it is another. Although the advent of the Internet, and particularly of the World Wide Web, has made it much easier to access information, the challenge lies in knowing what to look for to begin with and how to pick and choose from among the plethora of potential sources that exist. This guide begins to address these challenges by outlining the elements involved in the development of a research strategy and highlighting a variety of relevant information resources that are available on the Web.

Developing a Research Strategy

A. Identifying an Information Need

Interviews with asylum seekers or other applicants for some form of protection can elicit the key facts of a case. How do you begin to objectively situate these facts as they have been presented? Consider the following:

  • What is the international legal context? Specifically, what human rights instruments are relevant to a particular claim?

  • What is the national legal context? Does the country of origin’s Constitution provide basic guarantees to its nationals? What other relevant legislation has been enacted? Are these laws enforced? Are there opportunities for legal recourse? Is there an independent judiciary?

  • What is the current situation and treatment of members of the group represented by the applicant (social/ethnic group, political party, religious affiliation, gender, etc.), or what was the situation/treatment during the period that the persecution claimed by the applicant was alleged to have occurred? What is/was their position and status in society?

  • Who is the alleged persecutor and what role does he play in society? Is his influence widespread or limited to a particular place or region? If a non-state agent, does the government have any control over her actions?

B. Identifying Sources

Asking the right question can help you determine the type of source to draw on. Typical categories of sources include:

  • International instruments relevant to the reason for, and method of, persecution feared.

  • National legislation in the country of origin (e.g., constitutional provisions, legislative guarantees for certain rights or groups, criminal or military codes, etc.)

  • Case law (i.e., decisions from administrative and judicial bodies which granted asylum or other forms of protection to an individual with a claim similar to the one you are researching).

  • Guidelines, recommendations, resolutions issued by UNHCR and other international bodies as well as governmental agencies (e.g., those relating to women, like UNHCR’s Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women and the Beijing Platform of Action).

  • Human rights reports (e.g., consider those produced by (i): intergovernmental organizations, like the UN Commission on Human Rights; (ii) government agencies, such as the Research Program of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board; and (iii) non-governmental organizations, for example, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.

  • News reports and newswire services (e.g., InterPress Service, Agence France Presse, Reuters, etc.).

  • Background materials on the country of origin or region and/or on the specific issue raised in an asylum claim (e.g., the Guía del Mundo or the appeals archive of the Organisation mondial contre la torture)

  • Experts (e.g., researchers with regional expertise who can elaborate on specific aspects of country conditions for which no other information source is available).

Ultimately, not all of the sources under each of these categories may be available; however, it is important during the research process to attempt to canvass all categories in order to conduct as thorough and balanced an investigation as possible. Because of the time constraints that country researchers generally operate under, accessing information electronically can help to speed up the process.

C. Locating Sources on the Web

The World Wide Web is the fastest-growing service on the Internet. A recent survey reported counting almost one billion Web pages (“Briefly Column: Sizing up the Web,” p. 11). The amount of information available and the wider access offered by the Internet bode well for country of origin research in the future. At the same time, research on the Web can be frustrating, particularly for newcomers: While Web sites are standardized in terms of the program language used to create them, they are completely non-standard in terms of internal organizational structure. Moreover, given the number of new Web sites created every day, it is difficult to keep abreast of the latest additions. Myriad search engines and subject directories have been devised to assist users in locating information on the Web. Unfortunately, these tools are also not standardized, and in order to exploit each one fully, it is necessary to read the accompanying search documentation for guidance.

Several strategies that can be used to bypass these challenges include:

  1. Go directly to a source. If you are already familiar with a particular source and you wish to consult it online, the chances are fairly good that it has been posted on the Web. Most of the major human rights reports are available in full-text; for example, Amnesty International's and Human Rights Watch's reports are available at http://www.web.amnesty.org/web/content.nsf/pagesbycountrytitle/gbrlibraryhome and http://www.hrw.org/research/nations.html, respectively. In addition, many of the publishers of these resources have either organized their publication sections geographically or thematically or have developed special search engines for their sites to help users take fuller advantage of their documentation. A good example is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documents library (http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf) which offers access by human rights body, country, mandate, subject, document symbol, or year.

    A more complete list of resources is provided in the Bibliography.

  2. But visiting each source individually can be time-consuming. One value-added feature that some sites offer is a central point of access for the major human rights reports and other country-related information. This means that users can link directly to or learn about a wide range of sources from one site. Usually, the links are also organized in some meaningful way, whether by country or subject. See, for example, the following:

    Asylum and Refugee Resources (University of Minnesota Human Rights Library)
    A very useful collection of links to refugee treaties and other instruments, maps, resources for researching country conditions, NGOs, legal information, journals and other publications, and much more. A particularly handy feature is the table provided under the "Country Conditions" link which leads users directly to the most current of the following sources, on a country-by-country basis: U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Amnesty International (currently, only the annual report entry), Human Rights Watch (both the annual report entries and more detailed country reports), UNHCR Country Profiles, UNHCR Background Papers on Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and WriteNet Papers.

    Asylum Case Research Guide (Georgetown University Law Center)
    Provides links to other research guides, a variety of country conditions research resources on the web and elsewhere, and immigration and asylum law and procedure (U.S.-focused). Useful guide for those just starting out on asylum research.

    AsylumLaw.org (Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, FCJ Hamilton House Refugee Project, and Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center)
    A site designed to assist lawyers representing asylum seekers; the case support section links to country information for a handful of countries, while the legal tools section explains the asylum process in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.; links are also available to relevant EU resources; a closed section requires pre-registration for access to attorneys, legal briefs and a discussion forum. A fairly new feature is Super Search, a specialized search engine that allows users to search across nine human rights resources simultaneously (described in greater detail below).

    ReliefWeb, "Background by Country" (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance)
    Links are organized topically, including "country profiles," "culture," "demographics," "development," "disaster history," "economics," "food and agriculture," "geography and environment," "government and politics," "health," "history," "HIV-AIDs," "human rights," "infrastructure," "media links," "military and defence," "refugees and IDPs," "UN links," and "weather."

    INCORE Regional Internet Guides (INCORE)
    Each guide links to resources relating to conflict and ethnicity; links are grouped under various categories such as e-mail lists, news sources, human rights sources, NGOs, maps; the guides are not constantly updated but rather indicate a version number and date.

    The Internet Directory (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada)
    Compilation of sites referred to by the research program of the IRB. Links can be accessed geographically, then by resource type, as well as by subject.

  3. Other tools have been developed that allow users to search across the full-texts of a range of web-based sources. These specialized search engines can prove invaluable, particularly when one is confronted with a large mass of materials and limited time, because unlike the major web search engines, they focus in on certain subject areas. The examples provided below were designed to retrieve human rights and conflict-related information.

    Conflict Targeted Search (World Bank)
    Searches pre-selected conflict-related sites. The list of about 40 indexed web sites is available at http://www.worldbank.org/research/conflict/links.htm.

    Limited Area Search Engine (International Security Network)
    Searches sites that focus on international relations and security, particularly in the OSCE region. The search box allows users to restrict their queries to a certain time period or to a certain subset of sites (i.e., by type of provider, by region, or by special collection). It also encourages multilingual searches.

    Meta Search Engine for Searching Multiple Human Rights Sites (University of Minnesota Human Rights Library)
    Metasearch engine that can be used to search the following sites: the UN; UN Security Council Resolutions; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; International Labour Organization; Bibliography of UNESCO Documents, Publications and Library Collections; UNHCR, European Court of Human Rights, Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Committee of the Red Cross, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, U.S. State Department, University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Boolean (AND, OR, NOT), proximity operators and truncation are supported.

    Super Search (Asylumlaw.org)
    Metasearch engine that can be used to search the following sources: Asylumlaw.org, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Refugee Review Tribunal of Australia, Refugee Status Appeals Authority of New Zealand, UK Home Office Country Assessments, UNHCHR Charter-Based Bodies Database, UNHCR Background Papers and WriteNet Reports, U.S. State Department Country Reports. Boolean operators and punctuation are not supported.
     

    The key to mastering these tools is to take some time initially to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of searching. It is usually not sufficient to enter single search terms, unless they are highly specific (like "FGM"). You can produce better results if you learn the quirks of and syntax accepted by a handful of specialized search engines. If you use them with some frequency, formulating search strategies will become second nature.

D. Evaluating Sources

Information is only as good as its source. The ease with which information can be published on the Web has only served to complicate matters further. How can the risk that the information located is unreliable be minimized? Over time, you will become familiar with the reputations of certain information producers, but initially it is worth evaluating the purpose, scope, and authority of any work:

  • Who has produced the information and why?
    Answer this question by asking additional questions: “If it is an NGO, what is its philosophy? If an international organization, what is its mandate? If a newspaper, what are its politics? If a government, what is its record in the area of human rights and the rule of law? If a report by a UN rapporteur, who wrote it and under what restrictions?” (Centre for Documentation on Refugees, November 1992, para. 12).

  • How independent or impartial is the producer?
    Essentially, “objectivity” can be established by learning something about the organization itself, i.e., where its funding comes from, who makes the management decisions and does she have anything to gain or lose by the outcome of a case, etc. The Yearbook of International Organizations is a good secondary resource to use to determine what the policies and mandates are of different organizations.

  • Is a research methodology employed by the producer, and if so, what is it? Is it transparent? Is the information compiled corroborated? What vetting process is used?
    To address these issues, a workshop on fact-finding and documentation of human rights violations which was sponsored by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Thailand), made inter alia the following recommendations for domestic human rights NGOs undertaking fact-finding missions: disclose a mission’s terms of reference, develop guidelines for the collection and evaluation of evidence, authenticate documents and photographs used as evidence, corroborate evidence through verification and cross-checking, submit reports which clearly distinguish between findings based on direct versus circumstantial evidence, and describe the investigative process used in terms of interviews and on-site visits (Ravindran, D.J., Manuel Guzman and Babes Ignacio, eds.)

  • What is the research expertise of the producer? Is the information authoritative?
    This is related to mandate. If a producer issues a report on a country situation for which it lacks any expertise, then it may not be reliable. At the same time, most organizations normally state exactly what their expertise is in their mandate and describe their focus.

  • What is the tone of the report? What kind of language and definitions does it employ?
    Given the nature of the subject matter of many human rights reports, it is understandable that a bitter tone might resonate throughout the text. However, reputable human rights organizations are normally careful about overstating a case, and will attempt to characterize abuses according to defined categories without resorting to superlatives and angry verbiage.

  • Is the information considered public or confidential?
    It is good practice to limit oneself to information that is publicly available. Information characterized as confidential is by default unreliable because if it cannot be accessed by the public, it cannot by verified. For this reason, reports that appear to be based solely on “classified” information should be avoided. By the same token, if an interview is conducted or correspondence is received from an expert, be sure to request permission in writing to reproduce any notes, or transcriptions of tapes or letters to serve as material evidence.

  • How reliable is information on the Web?
    Given the fact that it is relatively easy to format documents for dissemination on the Web, an enormous variety of texts can be found, ranging from the arcane and eccentric to the substantive and informative. What is not always easy to judge is the authenticity of the document or the reliability of the information it contains. Checklists for evaluating information quality on the Internet abound and generally encourage users to consider a site's scope, content, design, purpose, and ease of use. Most bona fide web sites will provide an "about" section describing the author's or organization's credentials, and will give an indication of why the site was developed. Visit The Virtual Chase for some sample guidelines; the links to examples of bogus sites are particularly informative.

E. Conclusion

Despite one’s best efforts, the country research you conduct may yield no results or unsatisfactory ones. The mere absence of information – or one’s inability to find information that supports an applicant’s claim – should not in and of itself justify a negative decision. Locating details on the country of origin is not an end in and of itself, only a means to assist in the decision making process. Moreover, while technology itself will continue to improve over time, an information system will never make decisions for us. The burden will always rest with the decision maker to evaluate the facts and reach a conclusion. As the Handbook underlines,

…[W]hile the burden of proof in principle rests on the applicant, the duty to ascertain and evaluate all the relevant facts is shared between the applicant and the examiner. Indeed, in some cases, it may be for the examiner to use all the means at his [or her] disposal to produce the necessary evidence in support of the application. Even such independent research may not, however, always be successful and there may also be statements that are not susceptible to proof. In such cases, if the applicant’s account appears credible, he [or she] should, unless there are good reasons to the contrary, be given the benefit of the doubt (UNHCR 1992, para. 196).

References

“Briefly Column: Sizing up the Web.” 24 January 2000. International Herald Tribune (London Edition): 11.

Centre for Documentation on Refugees. November 1992. “Country-of-Origin-Information Project.” Geneva: UNHCR.

Ravindran, D.J., Manuel Guzman and Babes Ignacio, eds. 1994. Handbook on Fact-Finding and Documentation of Human Rights Violations. Bangkok: Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

UNHCR. 1992. Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva: UNHCR.

Yearbook of International Organizations Annual. Munich: K.G. Saur.