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Lack of objectivity in Home Office Country Reports

Source National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns



 
     Home Office Minister, Des Browne said today that "Accurate, objective and up to date information is vital to ensure a robust but fair asylum system"

 
     It's true.

 

     The government's Country Information Policy Unit (CIPU) Country Reports reports are used for assessing asylum decisions, used extensively by Home Office Presenting Officers at appeal level, and are taken by most members of the judiciary to be objective and impartial.

 
     Des Browne says CIPU report information is "of a high standard" and that he is "confident of the impartial way in which it is produced"

 
     IAS has now published a comprehensive analysis of 2004 CIPU reports (see below), and says that although there have been improvements since *2003, there are still many issues.  Below are describing words used by IAS ...

 
  • "lack of objectivity"
  • "unbalanced representation"
  • "serious breach of objectivity"
  • "inclusion of such blatant political opinion"
  • "All reports contain unattributed statements"
  • sourcing issues are "so endemic as to give the reader serious doubts about the validity of the report"

 
     IAS concludes that CIPU Reports still cannot be considered 'credible or free from political or policy bias'.

 
     Shockingly, Amnesty International found that 'caseworkers were discouraged from searching on the Internet ... Furthermore some caseworkers don't even feel the need to use the CIPU information or any other sources of information as they felt their knowledge of the countries was sufficient merely based on casework alone"

 
     The IAS say that problems with the below CIPU reports are "so serious that they make the report an inaccurate representation of the conditions in the country to the extent that, in our opinion, it should not be used in determining asylum claims. - Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, China, Colombia, DRC, Eritrea, Iran, Northern Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

 
     NCADC's suggestion is that so-called "failed" asylum seekers from these countries convey IAS's comments to their legal advisors and ask if the comments could contribute to further challenges of refusals of their claims.  Asylum seekers of the above countries whose claims have not yet been determined should ensure their legal advisor has a copy of the IAS report and uses it.

 
     IAS also comments on CIPU reports of the following countries - Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Sierra Leone, Serbia & Montegnegro (incl. Kosovo), Romania, Algeria and Burundi.

 
     One improvement announced today by the Home Office is that "The production of country information material used by the Home Office will now be undertaken by a Country Information Unit dedicated solely to that function and the country policy function will be performed separately within the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate".

 
      Whilst NCADC welcome this improvement, we think that production of country reports should be undertaken by an independent non-governmental organisation.

 
     The Home Office also said that "country reports will be published on the top twenty asylum producing countries (and other countries identified by operational need) instead of the current thirty five countries. This will enable resources to be focused to assure the standard of the material produced while ensuring that country reports are produced on the main asylum generating countries" ... this may possibly mean that CIPU reports of the "top 20" countries get better, but reports on the other 15 countries fall further and further out of date, and thus, possibly unhelpful.

 
     The full IAS report can be found below. 

 
      *The Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) did an analysis of CIPU 2003 reports and said that there was a "surprising degree of plagiarism, misquotation and inaccurate citation of source material".
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 
     "Lack of objectivity in Home Office Country Reports"

 
     Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) has published a comprehensive and damning analysis of the Home Office country information reports used for assessing asylum decisions.
http://ias.live.poptech.coop/C2B/document_tree/ViewADocument.asp?ID=169&CatID=6

 

 
     Summary of Findings
     IAS found that the majority of the April 2004 CIPU Reports constituted a significant improvement on their April 2003 counterparts. However, a number of major problems remain.
 
     The most significant of these is a lack of objectivity. At times this involves the direct insertion by the CIPU author of opinion into the text, at other times it is by way of an unbalanced representation of material from selected sources.
 
     Other notable concerns include the poor presentation of the reports which allows contradictory material to stand without comment, over-reliance on one source of material, serious omissions and poor sourcing. In some cases (see below for a list), these problems are so serious that they make the report an inaccurate representation of the conditions in the country to the extent that, in our opinion, it should not be used in determining asylum claims.
 
     In the IAS 'Home Office Country Assessments: An Analysis' (September 2003) one of the major criticisms was the surprising degree of plagiarism, misquotation and inaccurate citation of source material. This rendered the CIPU Assessments an unreliable source of information. In many of the Country Reports, these concerns have been substantially addressed. Some Country Reports, however, remain as poorly annotated as in April 2003. In several of the reports there is a noticeable lack of editing.
 
     We are aware that CIPU noted the criticisms raised by IAS and other organisations in response to the consultation last year and we have been impressed by CIPU's openness and willingness to implement change and improvement. IAS understands that CIPU hope to implement the full set of changes by the October 2004 reports, and so these comments below are given as an assessment of how the changes have affected CIPU so far.

     Home Office Opinion
     Each Country Report opens with a section on the scope of the document. In the 'Instructions on Producing Country Reports' it is stated that 'All Country Reports must contain the standard wording as in Annex 1'.  The first sentence of paragraph 1.2 states unequivocally that the Report 'does not contain any Home Office opinion or policy.'  IAS researchers found that the opinion of the writer (and therefore of the Home Office) had crept into the Reports on many occasions. In rare, but highly significant instances, this had occurred directly. More common was a lack of balance found in the Reports, where positive information was, without any stated reason, given precedence over negative information. The negative information was often not included at all or only in brief form. The issue of opinion was of key concern to the Advisory Panel on Country Information and was discussed at length at the meeting in March 2004. This is given further elucidation under the Conclusion and Recommendations section of this overview.
 
     Direct insertion of opinion
     In the Nigeria Country Report, on five separate occasions, CIPU have added sentences that give a significantly better impression of internal security than that contained in the source material. Three of these statements give evidence to the effect that the Nigerian police reacted in a timely and fair manner, one that the police were justified in their use of force, and the other that the government relies less than previously on the armed forces. On all of these occasions, it is claimed that this is the opinion of a particular source. However, not only was this opinion not offered by these sources, the opposite was true: the sources all testified to the inefficiency of the police, their unjustified use of force and the increase of reliance on the armed forces. This is such a serious breach of objectivity that it means the Nigeria Country Report is not a reliable document on which to assess asylum claims if those claims involve the question of availability of state protection, or police or state abuse.

 
     Another example is found in the first three paragraphs of the general introduction to human rights in the Eritrea Country Report, which include two comments to the effect that the standard of human rights is better than under other military dictatorships found in neighbouring countries. In the first instance, this is not relevant information for a decision-maker trying to assess the protection needs of an Eritrean claimant. Information on the appalling detention conditions and torture and abuse by government forces would be better placed here. In the second place, this reflects a significant lack of editorial scrutiny. The inclusion of such blatant political opinion from an unnamed embassy source which infers that it is acceptable to return someone to these atrocious conditions because they are not as bad as they could be, makes CIPU complicit in that view. This is not a question of offering a balance of information to that given by the US Department of State and Amnesty International (both of which find significant evidence of torture, and appalling detention conditions) because the source is not offering any verifiable alternative view.

 

 
     Indirect insertion of opinion
     Of particular note with regard to the above are the Country Reports on Somalia and Iran. Somalia was one of the countries assessed independently by the Advisory Panel on Country Information  and it is surprising, for this reason, that more care has not been taken with regard to this Report. Information that is outdated or only indirectly relevant to the subject matter is retained in place of more recent and relevant information that gives a more negative assessment of the situation. The most surprising example of this practice is the exclusion of material from a Home Office source (the report of a joint fact-finding mission to Somalia).  With respect to refugee returns, for example, the CIPU Report devotes two paragraphs to listing the specific numbers of Somali returns from neighbouring countries, whilst vital information from the fact-finding mission on at-risk categories of returnees from western countries is omitted.
 

 
     In relation to Iran, the CIPU writer appears to be unable to accept that human rights conditions have deteriorated in this country. Whilst ample information is given regarding the election victory of President Khatami and the reformists in 1997, 2000 and 2001, the Report gives barely any information with regard to the Majles elections of February 2004 in which the conservatives won a landslide victory (following the disqualification of many reformist candidates). The Report repeatedly chooses to cite UN sources from 1998 which talk hopefully about an improvement in the human rights situation rather than using more up to date sources. This blatantly violates paragraph 1.5 of the Country Reports 'Scope of Document', which claims that the sources 'remained relevant and up to date at the time the document was issued' (see below for more on this).
 
     There are many other examples of imbalance leading to a positive gloss on the presentation in the Country Reports. We believe that in the cases listed below, this is severe enough to make these sections of the CIPU report unreliable sources for use in asylum decisions.
 
Afghanistan    
o The effect of the Constitution
o Internal Security
o US abuse of Afghans
o Returns
o Role and Ability of NGOs

 
Albania
o Mental health
o Media restrictions
o Roma
o Trafficking

 
Angola 
o Situation in Cabinda, particularly government involvement

 
China  
o The effect of the Constitution
o AIDS statistics

 
Colombia       
o Justice and Impunity
o The political administration of President Uribe
o Ties between the paramilitary and government forces
o Sufficiency of Protection

 
DR Congo       
o Political prisoners
o HIV/AIDS
o Child care provision
o Impunity

 
Eritrea
o Human Rights overview

 
Iran   
o The political situation, and political activists
o Human Rights Generally
o Stoning

 
Northern Iraq  
o Judiciary
o Effective protection of Human Rights
o Women's rights
o Law and order
o Social services
o Political system

 
Nigeria
o Sufficiency of Protection, particularly police
o Police abuse

 
Sri Lanka      
o Prosecution of security force personnel

 
Zimbabwe       
o Persecution of perceived political opponents
o Persecution of family members of political opponents
o Medical Facilities

 
     Poor Construction / Lack of Analysis
     CIPU employs a standard format for the layout and presentation of information in the report. It has proven impossible to fit the correct information into the relevant section for some countries with this fixed format. It may be that the editorial board of CIPU need to allow the writers greater flexibility within the standard format. In most, if not all cases it appears that the up to date information has been tacked on to the end or the beginning of the section. This means that no attempt is made to point out discrepancies between sources - on several occasions CIPU give conflicting information from one paragraph to the next, without any indication that the conflict exists, let alone why preference should be given to one source over another.  This can range from minor contradictions to more serious ones.
 
     In the Iran Country Report, paragraph 6.198 begins with the assertion 'activities of opposition groups such as Tudeh, Iran Paad, Komala, and Fedayeen have not been evident in Iran in recent years'. In the same paragraph CIPU continues 'a number of Kurds, including members of Komala, have been executed in recent months'. It is a basic editorial activity to recognise that the first quote comes from a 1998 source (hence 'recent years' is not all that recent) and to cut this statement in preference for the second source which refer to executions in 2003 (which not only proves Komala active, but demonstrates the interest of the authorities in the group).

 
     In the Afghanistan Country Report, paragraph 6.84 tells us that the situation for Hindus and Sikhs is good. 6.85 then says Hindus and Sikhs returning to Afghanistan have found that their houses and temples have been total ruined or are occupied and they have no means of repossessing their property due to fear of reprisals and that most are homeless and without jobs. Often these contradictions are not even placed in subsequent paragraphs, leaving it up to the perseverance of the reader to ascertain that there may indeed even be a contradiction. In the same report CIPU state the number of Pashtuns as being 38% (at 6.114) and then 44% (at 6.121); Hazaras as 19% (6.114) and 10% (6.136); Uzbecks as 6% (6.114) and 8% (6.152).
 
     In the Colombia Country Report there is only one general section on 'Persons targeted by Guerrilla and Paramilitary forces', consisting of an unwieldy nineteen paragraphs, many of which give contradictory information. Since the majority of Colombian asylum-seekers to the UK fear persecution from guerrilla or paramilitary forces, this should surely be the crux of the report. It would be sensible to give detailed evidence on groups, political or otherwise, that are at risk.
 
     Whilst the Country Reports do have information on the various arms of the internal security forces, none of them have dedicated sections to availability of state protection. Internal security is covered in the standard 'Section 5 - State Structures' which attempts to set out the technical legal or constitutional position in a country (for example, stating that torture is unlawful) rather than the actual position on the ground and any reported human rights abuses by these forces. In countries such as Colombia where the vast majority of claims are related to non-state actors, it would be pertinent for CIPU to create a section dedicated to this. Information on protection in the Colombian Country Report is dispersed throughout in four non-related paragraphs, the most relevant of which is hidden in a section entitled 'Treatment of Non-Governmental Organisations'.

     Over-Reliance on a Single Source
     All of the CIPU reports rely extensively and uncritically on the US Department of State human rights reports. On average about 60% of the material is direct quotation from the US Department of State. This raises several different issues. The first relates to political opinion and the reliability of this as a source material, the second to the broader issue of the role of CIPU.

 
     The 'Country Reports on Human Rights Practices' from the US Department of State are unsourced documents which rely on primary and secondary sources of information. According to the 'Preface' these reports are compiled by the relevant embassies through their contacts with 'human rights organizations, public advocates for victims, and others fighting for human freedom in every country and every region of the world.'  Whilst for many countries this can be a very good source of information, for others it leaves much to be desired.

 
     It has become quite evident over the last two years that US Government awareness of the situation on the ground in countries where they have no embassy is questionable. For example, the US had no presence in Iraq from 1991 - 2003. Their intelligence was based therefore not on embassy sources as cited above, but on satellite photos and the word of dissidents. The debate over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has made it amply clear that information from these latter sources is far from reliable. Particular care should therefore be taken when using these reports to reflect the current situation in DR Congo, Iran, Somalia and Sudan which do not have a US embassy.

 
     Furthermore, the US Department of State is not itself free from political bias or opinion. It has been criticised by both the US-based organisation Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch for the lack of objectivity in its reports concerning countries in which it has a politically sensitive stance. This would certainly apply to Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, and Uzbekistan.

 
     The Colombia Country Report directly quotes from the US Department of State in 110 out of the 215 paragraphs. The political opinion of the US Department of State has been incorporated wholesale into the CIPU Country Report and this has particularly affected the objectivity of the Report with regard to justice and impunity, the political administration of President Uribe, and the ties between the paramilitaries and the army. There is an abundance of evidence available to CIPU from credible organisations such as the UNHCHR  (February 2004 report),  Human Rights Watch (who, unlike the US Department of State, give detailed footnotes for their primary sources including information regarding who they interviewed, when, what evidence they saw, etc.) and International Crisis Group. The CIPU Country Report for Colombia has to be considered an unreliable document for determining asylum claims in light of this, as the wealth of evidence supplied by virtually all other sources either directly contradicts what is said by the US Department of State, or gives details which expose its positive glossing of the situation.
 
     There are many other examples of over-reliance on the reports of the US Department of State, such as in the Sierra Leone Country Report, where the outstanding and award-winning work of Human Rights Watch only receives two references, one of which is erroneous. Amnesty International, similarly, are only accredited with the fact that Sierra Leone retains the death penalty.
 
     The strong reliance on the US Department of State reports also raises the question of time, money, and necessity. Since 60% of the Country Reports is directly copied from the US Department of State, it would be simpler, quicker, and more accurate if Home Office caseworkers were advised to read the US Department of State report in the first instance. Whilst this is not written for the asylum process, the danger of segmenting it into various chapter headings is that, even when accurately quoted, information relating to the same point gets omitted or lost into another section. This is systematic throughout the CIPU Reports (see above 'Poor construction').

     Sourcing
     Paragraph 1.2 of the 'Scope of the Document' states that:
 
     a) 'All information in the Report is attributed, throughout the text, to original source material.'
Paragraph 1.4 of the 'Scope of the Document' states that:
 
    b) 'The great majority of the source material is readily available in the public domain' and 'Copies of other source documents, such as those provided by government offices, may be provided upon request.'
Paragraph 1.5 of the 'Scope of the Document' states that:
 
     c) 'All sources have been checked for currency, and as far as can be ascertained, contain information, which remained relevant at the time this Report was issued. Some source documents have been included because they contain relevant information not available in more recent documents.'
Paragraph 1.6 of the 'Scope of the Document' states that:
 
     d) 'Where sources identified in this Report are available in electronic form the relevant link has been included.'

 
     None of the above statements is accurate for any of the 23 Country Reports checked by IAS. In the 'Report of Advisory Panel on Country Information consultation exercise on CIPU Country Reports October 2003' CIPU respond to this criticism by commenting 'Although errors of this kind do not, in our view, compromise the fundamental integrity of the Reports, they may undermine confidence in them and must be eradicated as far as possible'.  While IAS is very happy to note CIPU's determination to rid the report of these sourcing errors, we still believe that when a considerable amount of the material in a given Report is wrongly sourced, this completely undermines the integrity of that Report.
 
     If an expert before the Immigration Appeal Tribunal were to produce a report claiming that conditions in detention in France, for example, amounted to a breach of Article 3, and the IAT found that over 50% of the material did not come from the credible source that the expert had cited, the court would be unlikely to give much weight to the evidence of the expert, and the thesis that detention conditions in France were inhuman and degrading would remain unproven. When it is found that these credible sources actually state the opposite, as is often the case in CIPU Reports, the expert report would have to be considered as fundamentally flawed, lacking in integrity and would therefore be rejected in its entirety. The same would apply to a journalist writing an article, an academic writing a research paper or a student writing an essay. It is extremely difficult to understand why CIPU maintains that such errors do not affect the overall reliability of the reports.

 
     In the 'Home Office Country Assessments: An Analysis' (September 2003), IAS found the level of sourcing was so poor that many of the Reports were chronically unreliable and little faith could be given to their thesis that these countries were largely free from risk for certain individuals. In this year's analysis, IAS is happy to report that there has been a significant improvement in most of the countries assessed, particularly with regard to plagiarism and basic inaccuracies. However, sourcing is still not up to a satisfactory level to give the reader confidence in the Reports, and some Country Reports are as bad, or worse, than in April 2003.
 
     a) 'All information in the Report is attributed, throughout the text, to original source material.'

 
     All reports contain unattributed statements. Some of these are literally left without a source, others have been credited to a source which does not give the relevant material as claimed. In some Country Reports this is so endemic as to give the reader serious doubts about the validity of the report.
 
     In the Iran Country Report in sections five and six alone there are 35 mis-sourced statements and 12 unsourced statements.

 
     In the Angola Country Report (sections 5, 6 and Annexes) there are 27 mis-sourced statements.

 
     In the Somalia Country Report there are 15 mis-sourced statements. In the Iraq Country Report, mis-sourcing or misunderstanding the source accounts for 30% of the information checked.
 
     Of particular concern is Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo) which is so badly sourced and edited as to raise serious doubts about the validity of the whole report. Indeed at one point the endnote to the paragraph even states 'no source found'.

 
     Are we then to believe that CIPU are making this up? Why was this paragraph included in the document if it cannot be sourced? The editing notes have been left in throughout (this also occurred with Afghanistan, China, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Turkey) which displays poor editorial work if nothing else.

 
     Almost without exception, virtually all of the page numbers given for the US Department of State report did not relate to the online version or the printed-out version of this report. They were all inaccurate.  In some cases the reports did not even run to the page number claimed. CIPU should use the section references supplied by the US Department of State rather than invented page numbers.
 
     b 'The great majority of the source material is readily available in the public domain' and 'Copies of other source documents, such as those provided by government offices, may be provided upon request.'

 
     About 40% of the material is not readily available in the public domain (not a great majority). Some is correspondence, a lot is by subscription service only. For the purposes of this analysis, IAS requested these unavailable documents from CIPU for certain countries. Unfortunately this was not an efficient process.

 
     With regard to Romania, half the sources did not arrive, those that did arrive contained only partial amounts of the document (so it was not possible to check if the information was contained in them) and they arrived a month after requesting. Requests for documents on

 
     Iran never arrived at all (despite three requests being made). Given that CIPU's reputation has been so severely tarnished with regard to misquoting from sources, this would have been a good opportunity for this fear to be set aside as regards documents not in the public domain. This did not happen, which leaves the possibility open that the documents do not contain what they are supposed to contain. Documents for Eritrea, DRC, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan arrived as requested, albeit some four to six weeks after the request was made. This would often be too late for use in an asylum appeal, and definitely too late for use in an initial decision.
 
     c) All sources have been checked for currency, and as far as can be ascertained, contain information, which remained relevant at the time this Report was issued. Some source documents have been included because they contain relevant information not available in more recent documents.'
This is also not true. Several reports contained examples of sources used which had not been sourced at all (usually left in from previous years).

 
     In the Nigeria Country Report, there were many times when the footnote had been amended to make the material from the US Department of State report for 2003, when in actual fact it was a direct quote from 2002 or 2001.

 
     With regard to Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo) there have been 21 documents released on the Amnesty International website on these countries since last year and not one of them is used or referenced in CIPU's April 2004 Report.

 
     Use of out of date material is also particularly problematic in the Algeria and Iran Country Reports.
 
     d) 'Where sources identified in this Report are available in electronic form the relevant link has been included.'

 
     This is not the case. Most of the sources are found electronically, and only the homepage has been given not the actual link. Even then, some are cited so badly that it is not possible even to find the homepage. The 'Instructions for Producing Country Reports' actually state '[t]he length of link should ideally be kept short and if necessary further navigation details given from that.'  We have seen no evidence at all of further navigation details being provided. The length of the link is so short as to preclude the finding of the document. For some the homepage or website given is no longer live and has clearly not been checked since the previous year.
 
     Several of the sources in each report are listed so badly that it is impossible to know to what they are referring. For example no date is given or no name of the article. One such example is from the Iran Country Report which states '[16a] Various - punishments [Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph] 17 February 1998'. (The Times published two articles on this date relating to Iran, neither the Guardian nor the Daily Telegraph published anything to do with Iran on this date). In some instances the report simply refers to the website without specifying what on the website (this is hugely problematic if this relates to an organisation with a large website with thousands if not millions of reports such as the United Nations). This is against the instructions given by CIPU on the production of Country Reports,  and is a simply point that should easily have been spotted by an editor.

     Basic Inaccuracies
     This relates to mistakes in dates, names or basic information. This was a vast improvement from the April 2003 Assessments.

 
     Concerns still remain with regard to Albania, Burundi, China, Eritrea and Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo).

     Plagiarism
     The most noticeable improvement on the April 2003 Assessments is the use of quotation marks to denote when material is being taken directly from a source. Out of the 23 April 2004 country reports analysed by IAS, concerns remain with regard to Afghanistan, Eritrea and Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo).
 
     Conclusions and Recommendations
 
     1. Objectivity
     The purpose of CIPU is to provide country information of relevance to decision-makers involved in determining asylum claims. This can be sub-divided into three strands of people: policy-makers, caseworkers, and judiciary.
 
     Policy-Makers
     It has been pointed out that the name itself 'Country Information and Policy Unit' is problematic. CIPU do not, despite their title, attempt to drive or make policy.

 
     However, they do produce information (both the Country Reports and the Operational Guidance Notes) which feed into policy decisions.
 
     It remains highly problematic that CIPU are part of the Home Office. The more detached and objective the Country Reports become, the more questions must be raised about Home Office Policy. For example:
 
     1. How can the Home Office justify inclusion of Sri Lanka on the non-suspensive appeals (NSA) list when the CIPU Report makes it clear that the necessary criteria are not met?

 
     2.How can the stance on returns to Iraq and Somalia be justified, when the CIPU Reports indicate the general high-level risk to all returnees?

 
     According to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, the Secretary of State may add a state to the NSA list if there is 'no serious risk of persecution'.  The CIPU Report details the continuing regular use of torture by both the government and the LTTE and the culture of impunity for human rights violations.  It also reports that the legal mechanisms in place are not sufficient for tortured detainees to receive a fair trial.  The regular use of torture in detention to extract confessions which are then admissible in court hearings, surely, constitutes 'a serious risk of persecution'.
CIPU state that their reports are used in decisions on whether failed asylum seekers can be returned to a country, but given the above, it is clear that they are ignored.

 
     Caseworkers
     CIPU's main users, the key target audience, are Home Office caseworkers making initial decisions on asylum claims. However, as noted above, it is clear that the reports do not meet the needs of the caseworkers as they make such a poor attempt (and fail) to 'signpost' caseworkers in the direction of information. In addition to this, research by Amnesty International found that 'caseworkers were discouraged from searching on the Internet. They were instructed to contact CIPU through a senior caseworker if further information was required about a claim.'  Furthermore some caseworkers don't even feel the need to use the CIPU information or any other sources of information as they felt their knowledge of the countries was sufficient merely based on casework alone.

 
     Judiciary
     In the minutes of the 2 March 2004 meeting, Andy Saunders, Assistant Director of CIPU, commented that 'none of the points accepted [i.e. the individual criticisms received by CIPU from IAS and others] would have affected any decision on an asylum claim'. 

 
     Whilst it is possible that no single individual point may be responsible for a wrong decision,  IAS is of the opinion that certain Country Reports as a whole have been the leading factor in making many wrong decisions.

 
     The CIPU Country Reports are used extensively by Home Office Presenting Officers at appeal level and are taken by most members of the judiciary to be objective and impartial.

 
     The IAT representative to the APCI, Andrew Jordan, commented 'he could not emphasise strongly enough how much the IAT relied upon CIPU's reports and how important it was that they were impartial.'

 
     Similarly in Saber v SSHD (Ct of Sessions), [2004] INLR 222-231 it is said, 'If, for example, an adjudicator were to accept evidence from an appellant that was expressly contradicted by all sources of independent information, such as CIPU assessments, the Tribunal might well disturb the adjudicator's finding.'  CIPU argue that any political bias on behalf of the writers of the reports is not a deliberate attempt to skew information in any one direction.

 
     However, the Chair of the APCI, Steven Castles, commented that:
[E]rrors of the types listed might be expected to be random, and therefore to more or less cancel each other out. Yet in this report the overwhelming majority of errors seemed to lead to an overly optimistic picture about Sri Lanka. This suggested that the errors may not be completely random, and that some other factors may be at work. 
CIPU must accept that a degree of political opinion is bound to be present. According to CIPU 'although country experts may have a better contextualised understanding of the country situation, they are also more likely to have subjective opinions on the matter.'

 
     IAS considers this statement unsubstantiated and naove. One of the fundamental criteria for any expert is objectivity as far as such a thing is possible. Experts, by their very nature have received training and have years of experience in producing academic objective opinion that is thoroughly scrutinised and supported by evidence.

 
     In addition, when experts give evidence in appeals, they routinely sign documents stating their awareness of their duty to provide impartial information to the court or tribunal. CIPU Country Officers lack both this training and experience, and, as has been shown above, their work is barely scrutinised at all and very often is unsupported.

 
     2. Structure
     The structural failings already identified and the standard template lead CIPU to disperse relevant information throughout different sections and make the documents extremely difficult to use. We recommend that CIPU structures each Country Report to be of relevance to that particular country. For example, if the majority of claims relate to persecution by non-state actors, then CIPU should provide a section on the availability of state protection. At the very least the standard template should be re-examined.

 
     CIPU reports should include analysis and comment only to the extent that discrepancies between sources are pointed out to the reader. Where sources conflict and it is possible to give precedence to one report over the other, CIPU should state this and give its reasons. For example, 'Different figures are given for the number of AIDS sufferers in Ruritania, but CIPU concur with those of the World Health Organisation as these are based on a 2003 two-month in-country assessment by a team of experts, rather than the figure reported by AIDS Sufferers Unite as this report is reliant on 2001 estimates.'
 
     Rather than being a string of quotes starting with the positive and leading to the negative, often emphasising the former disproportionately, CIPU should begin each section with a brief introduction along the lines of 'While the US Department of State reports that human rights were adhered to in general in Ruritania, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both give specific examples of torture in detention'.
 
     3. Editing
     CIPU note that they have included an additional week into the schedule 'for the specific purpose of thoroughly checking each report', and that they have implemented a 'revised management structure which provides for closer control'.  The 'Instructions on Producing Country Reports' states that 'Country Reports must be rigorously checked internally prior to publication. Country Reports must never be published without having first been quality assured'.  This policy is either not followed, or the editors are extremely deficient in editing skills. The editing of the Reports remains atrocious. The publishing of seven Country Reports with the editing notes still in place in the document is extremely surprising and provides a clear indication that the Reports were not given any final check. Basic issues such as obvious spelling errors throughout,  poor sourcing (see below), and unintelligible sentences also remain prevalent.

 
     The early editing of the Reports is also weak. The 'Instructions on Producing Country Reports' commands the editor to check a 'minimum of 20 sources'.  Yet IAS found a large number of statements were mis-sourced. If this editing facility was done at random as suggested by the instructions, then such a large number of mis-sourced statements should not remain. The alternative explanation is that the majority were mis-sourced to begin with, but we would hope that an editor who found more than half of the random sample to be mis-sourced would have the initiative to go on to check a further 20.

 
     Those chosen to edit reports should be trained in editing and basic research skills, and need to be absolutely rigorous in the application of these skills to the Reports. If Reports do not reach a minimum standard by publication date they should not be released until that standard has been met.
 
     4. Sourcing
     CIPU should use footnotes. Every statement should be properly annotated as is done in this report with the title of the document, the name of the body producing the document, the date and the weblink (where applicable) included. If there is no weblink, CIPU should write 'available in hard copy only from ****' and give a precise telephone number or email address. These sources must then be provided expeditiously and in full on request. To work to less thorough standards of sourcing in this context is not good enough. If CIPU is to provide objective evidence for matters pertaining to life and death, it absolutely must be able to support every single statement it makes to a clearly signposted location.

 
     5. Past and Present Tense
     IAS welcomes CIPU's assertion that all reports will be written in the past tense. This was not done for all of the April 2004 reports and it is hoped that this will be the case for October 2004.
 
     6. Dating of material
     IAS welcomes CIPU's initiative to use the most up to date information on all occasions unless material from older sources is still relevant. When using older sources, CIPU should state that more recent information was not available from the sources consulted.
 
     CIPU should state a cut-off date for when the writers have stopped incorporating new material. This is extremely important in the context of asylum claims and appeals, where the decision-maker is making a judgment about risk on return as if it were to take place tomorrow. At present, CIPU reports mislead decision-makers into believing that the information is current when in fact it is not. It is important that this perception is corrected by the stating of a cut-off date.

 
     The problem is complicated by the sporadic nature of CIPU updating. Some reports include one or two articles from February or March 2004. However, as this is only one or two, it is often a valid criticism that CIPU have not engaged in the events of these months with proper rigour. Amnesty International (published May of the year after), Human Rights Watch (published January of the year after) and the US Department of State (published February/March of the year after) note that their information is solely regarding the previous year and ends on 31st December. Whilst it is highly relevant for asylum decisions that the most up to date information be available, this should be by way of supplement rather than hurried inclusion into the Country Reports.


     IAS hopes that this analysis will be helpful to CIPU and the APCI in improving the standard of the Country Reports to a level where they can be considered reliable and useful documents. However, IAS still believes that information on countries for use in making decisions in matters of life and death should be given to an independent body that is respected and admired by all sides in the process: an independent documentation centre. The content of the Reports produced should also feed into and dictate the subsequent formation of Home Office policy as it relates to returns of failed asylum seekers.
 
     In the House of Lords report on 'Handling EU asylum claims: new approaches examined', the Lords stipulated that ensuring the availability of 'authoritative and credible country of origin information' to those making the decisions was essential to improving the current asylum process.  The Lords noted that the CIPU Country Assessments were not accepted as 'authoritative, credible or free from political or policy bias'.  IAS research proves that despite the measures put in place by CIPU following recommendations from the APCI, the CIPU Reports still cannot be considered 'credible or free from political or policy bias'.

 
      'Handling EU asylum claims: new approaches examined' House of Lords European Union Committee 11th Report of Session 2003-04 (30 April 2004), ch.6, para. 104 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200304/ldselect/ldeucom/74/7402.htm

 

 

 

September 2004

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