Gastbeitrag: Entwicklung von COI-Standards und -Praxis, die Anfänge (Sharon Rusu)

Sharon Rusu, erste Leiterin des Dokumentationszentrum des kanadischen IRB, war als Sprecherin zur gemeinsamen Konferenz von EASO und ACCORD über COI-Methoden eingeladen, musste jedoch leider absagen. Mit ihrer freundlichen Genehmigung veröffentlichen wir hier die Notizen, die sie für ihre Eröffnungsrede vorbereitete. Darin gibt sie Einsichten in die Anfänge der Recherche von Herkunftsländerinformationen und der Entwicklung von Qualitätsstandards.


Managing mixed flows of asylum-seekers and other migrants is a complex problem that puts pressure on asylum systems and poses profound legal and ethical questions. Receiving countries struggle to achieve the right balance between immigration control and refugee protection. Squaring domestic with international obligations poses an essential dilemma for receiving countries, not the least Canada at the inception, in 1989, of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (hereafter IRB).

In an article entitled, ‘The Information Aspects of Refugee Work — Time for a Full-Scale Information Strategy’’[1], published in the December 1988 issue of UNHCR’s Refugee Abstracts, Philip Rudge, with ECRE, and Morten Kjaerum, with the Danish Refugee Council, underlined ‘what ought always to have been self-evident, that the protection of refugees depends on policy-makers, practitioners and the general public having the best possible information available to them.’

My own experience as a member of the Refugee Status Advisory Committee (RSAC), the precursor to the IRB, resonated soundly with this view. The RSAC required its decision-makers in RSD to decide claims on the basis of transcripts, interviews of the refugee claimant by an immigration officer, without benefit of information on the countries of origin. Members looked to available sources, primarily Amnesty International and US State Department Reports. But too often, decisions were based solely on the decision-makers’ assessment of the claimant’s credibility. There was no requirement for members to review country reports, and no standards for those reports that were available, before rendering a decision. Decisions based on such inadequate information were of questionable fairness and often ended up at the Federal Court on appeal.

This lack of timely, verifiable and trustworthy country information troubled me at the time but had to wait for further development until 1989 with the launch of the IRB. Supported in its inception and development first by the report of Rabbi Gunther Plaut who, in 1985 underlined in his report on the elements of a new asylum procedure for Canada, the need for the ‘establishment of a Document Division…based on the belief that a maximum of knowledge – both of a claimant’s country of origin and pertinent law [would] greatly facilitate reaching fair decisions.’

As the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) opened its doors in 1989, the first Chair, Gordon Fairweather, and Executive Director, Peter Harder, were instrumental in insuring that the budget and support for a nation-wide network of documentation centres was made real. The IRB Documentation Centre (hereafter IRBDC) was initiated with headquarters in Ottawa and 6 regional centres.

Though first asked to be a member of the IRB, I saw the opportunity to develop a system and methodology for informed decision-making and was honoured to become the first Chief, Research, IRB Documentation Centre Headquarters, Ottawa.

1. Early Days — and so it began

First, there was no internet and, second, unlike UNHCR’s Refugee Documentation Centre, the IRBDC had no access to documentalists trained in the art of selecting and abstracting refugee-relevant documents in several languages. Thus the first thing to do was to find out who was doing what where in asylum support, policy and research on refugees in Europe and the USA while at the same time recruiting staff who could hit the ground running to respond in English and French to the needs of IRB members.

I was encouraged and supported to visit documentation projects in Europe and the USA. These visits included talks with project staff and with government officials. Discussions led to promises of support and collaboration. This mission was revelatory as it was the beginning of the creation of a network of ‘like minds’ ready to share information and expertise towards a common goal – informing decision-makers and others on the situation in countries of origin that led to refugees fleeing persecution within the definition of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

Within short order the IRB Documentation Centre was required to produce a statement of how it would support its mandate ‘to meet the information needs of the Convention Refugee Determination Division and the Immigration and Appeal Division along with serving as a public affairs and education resource on refugee, human rights and migration matters.’

A tall order, indeed, but shaped by past experience and the needs of the newly-formed IRB, an administrative tribunal whose rules on the admissibility of evidence required Board members to give more attention to the weight of the evidence rather than to formal or technical questions, the IRBDC came up with the following statement of objectives and principles summarized here:

  • To provide, actively and regularly, the latest country of origin information to the major actors in the process;
  • To offer objective and authoritative but not ‘expert’ analysis of a wide range of trustworthy and current country information and available, relevant case law;
  • To acquire, treat, store and disseminate such information using both hardcopy, and electronic means and make it publicly available;
  • For the purposes of educating both researchers on COI and decision-makers to initiate their participation in relevant training and information-exchange;
  • To actively network with national and international human rights, and refugee documentation centres; and
  • To ensure that the formats necessary for such exchange comply with those already established as international standards such as HURIDOCs and the Thesaurus of International Refugee Documentation.

2. Country Reports

Within the first year, three important challenges presented themselves.

The first was how best to develop a methodology for researchers in drafting Country Reports. The second, was how to train researchers in methods that were developing daily. The third was, in the absence of the internet, to ensure rapid electronic delivery of research reports to decision-makers and research support materials for IRBDC staff.

On the first, a method for analyzing COI was born out of necessity. The sources of information used by the IRBDC ranged widely; AI Reports, US State Department Country Assessments, reports of UN organs and regional and country human rights rapporteurs and analyses by non-governmental organizations such as the ICJ, European Council for Minority Rights Group, ECRE, Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, the Danish and Norwegian Refugee and Human Rights Councils, Documentation Réfugiés, Zentrale Dokumentationsstelle der Freien Wohlfartspflege für Flüchtlinge (ZDWF [2]), Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights plus boxes of reports arriving daily from the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service. All this data required review, classification and analysis to support the drafting of Country Reports. Looking to the principles enshrined in our mandate statement, we set about developing and articulating a methodology of COI practice.

The second was to train researchers in newly developing COI methods while supplying country reports to decision-makers, working in two official languages and always aware that the IRB was an administrative tribunal and our information was under constant scrutiny. Despite these challenges, we were continuously developing methods and training researchers at the same time. The IRBDC researchers were fundamental contributors to the development of COI at the IRB. Their contribution cannot be underestimated. They were committed to the cause of a just system of status determination in Canada through the development of a defensible method for reporting on a country’s rule of law…and it showed in the production of first-rate reports.

On the third, rapidly sharing information, we acquired a software programme, Inquire Text. This programme featured a strong relational capacity and was ideal for finding information using descriptors from UNHCR’s International Refugee Thesaurus. This programme permitted Board members and all related staff and lawyers access to IRB information including country reports and caselaw. With this programme, alongside the development of Country Reports, we were able to set out a series of responses to often asked country-specific questions which we offered to Board members as our ‘Question and Answer Series.’

Due to the popularity of the series, we were soon forced to limit questions solely to Board members as refugee lawyers across Canada and the USA nearly collapsed the system with requests. Instead, we opted to send out monthly hard copies of our Country Reports to governments and NGOs in the UK, Washington, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and UNHCR.

3. COI Methodology: first steps in developing Standards

As noted earlier, COI methodology at the IRBDC accompanied the need to quickly produce Country Reports. For our first reports, our guide for researchers focused on the country at hand; its relevant historical facts, a chronology of significant events, current ‘publicly available’ information on political, ethnic, religious groups from the reports of human rights monitors and observers, newspapers, FBIS reports and the BBC World Service plus an extensive bibliography. We wanted to avoid biased or generalized assumptions about a country which flow from reports on, for example, constitutional guarantees which may not hold in practice and media and other accounts which often neglect information vital to a full understanding of the impact of events.

Where we found contradiction or were unsure of the provenance of a report, we looked for verification — not just one but three sources. If, from time to time, we received confidential information, to safeguard the source, we looked for publicly available corroboration of the information. We used to refer to this as ‘laundering at large.’[3]

Within a year, the guidance for Country Reports took shape as full blown COI research standards, guidance for research, drafting and most importantly training. Being able to clearly articulate the methods informing IRBDC reports spoke to the defensibility of the reports and admitted of challenge in our reporting.

As background to training in COI, our clear message to researchers was to instill in them a common view of the scope and potential sources of country of origin information. At the IRBDC, though we viewed COI as grounded in refugee and human rights law, its thematic scope went well beyond the human rights situation in any country.

Understanding of the political institutions, development and power relations, forms the background to understanding rationales and motives behind persecution. Sources providing a sound assessment of the security situation, including law enforcement, also needed to be covered in order to decide whether basic human rights are respected in practice, and whether the authorities in the country of origin are able and willing to provide protection against human rights violations.

At the same time, in training researchers, it was made clear to them that a refugee claim can present a wide range of issues for potential research often related to credibility. In determining the credibility of a claimant, decision-makers would need information on cultural and religious practices, ethnicity, geography, topography and the history of the country. As we progressed with training and the production of Country Reports, we soon learned that if the first decision was based on clearly documented COI relative to clearly identified facts, the claim was more likely to withstand both substantive and procedural challenges.

The IRBDC’s first COI methods are, in my view, the principle elements of today’s extensive COI research methodology and standards. Since these elements are the daily bread of COI research today, I will not belabour explanation of each as they are identified, well-documented, clearly articulated and admirably presented by EASO, ACCORD and others. Rather, I propose to highlight some of the definitions attached to the standards of that time when IRB researchers were required to meet the COI needs of decision-makers in an administrative tribunal.

  • Relevance
    Relevance describes that which is immediately important to establishing a context for the case or contextual relevance recalling always that the decision-maker has to assess what is given, to weigh it and relate it to the facts of the case. Thus relevance as to source selection is determined by the details of the claimant’s story, the questions that arise from the story, or the need to verify a persecutor or event described in the claimant’s testimony.

    When drafting a country report, in the absence of a specific claim, the COI researcher will need to cover all those categories above which guided them in their training while also looking at another test of relevance which is legal. Here an assessment of whether there is persecution will require information on whether a person or a group of persons is targeted on one of the legal grounds mentioned in the refugee definition, namely, race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
  • Reliability
    Reliability must be understood in practice. How do we test for reliability? Some sources are inherently reliable, but only because they have withstood the tests of time and challenge. No particular source should be ruled out, as a coherent body of information requires multiple sources, each ideally with something to corroborate or qualify in the other.

    Other sources need backup. It is important to know where the report starts from. If it is a government, what is its record on the rule of law; if an NGO, what is its philosophy and who funds it; and if a newspaper, what are its politics. Information from the country of origin should be handled with care and checked against the results of legitimate fact-finding missions. Information thus obtained should be used with discretion or ‘laundered’ if the security of the source is in question.
  • Timeliness
    Timeliness is important, but so too is recognizing that refugee claims are set in the past, assessed in the present and yet future-oriented, in that they concern predictive outcomes such as whether it is safe for the claimant to return. So, timeliness of the information must take past, present and future into consideration.

    Still, it can be a difficult task to set down in words precisely the degree of risk in any country or context, and to distinguish what is plausible, past, present or future, from what is reasonably possible or serious.
  • Authority
    Authority describes the process of attributing weight to contrasting but reputable points of view. Sources from the public domain can be tested through review and verification, taking note of where they come from and who is behind the source. Confidential sources cannot be tested in the same way and are thus limited in authority, neither easily verifiable or shareable. Country assessments that are open and available in the public domain can be scrutinised by all stakeholders involved in the refugee status determination process; on the way, they acquire authority. Additionally, open access to a public domain country of origin system is an important prerequisite to the promotion of quality standards and accountability.

4. COI Research Standards: Substantive and Procedural

In due course it became clear that further standards relating to the actual research process, framed and informed the work of COI researchers. Like the standards for the collection of COI, IRBDC researchers began to distinguish between the standards used to guide source selection and those for COI research in general. Over time, at the IRBDC, researchers distinguished these standards as first, substantive criteria, and second, as procedural criteria.

To maintain the highest possible standards in COI for decision support requires that both sets of standards are acknowledged and applied.

Five standards were agreed by IRBDC researchers to apply to the procedural side of COI: public domain, source protection, impartiality (neutrality), protection of personal data, transparency and accessibility. I propose to elaborate solely on public domain, impartiality, transparency and accessibility.

  • Public Domain
    Country of origin information should be equally available at all instances of asylum decision-making. Applicants, legal advisors and all others with interest should have access to all information used to determine a refugee claim. Publication and dissemination in this way meant that country assessments were open to scrutiny; errors and misjudgements could be more easily detected and corrected.

    Today this standard requires no defence but it was unsettling at the time for decision-makers accustomed to taking asylum decisions based on written transcripts ‘huit clos’.
  • Impartiality (neutrality)
    Accuracy and reliability are ensured if research on country conditions is conducted in a manner that is at once impartial, neutral and objective. The requesting institute should not fetter the independence of the research or researcher. Researchers require knowledge of vast amounts of sources on a given country. Their job is to represent in their reporting all relevant points of view both corroborative and detrimental. Little good is served when COI is one-side and presents solely information that supports a particular view. No information relevant to the case, whether positive or negative, should be overlooked.

    The best way to ensure independence is through the creation of a COI unit with a clear mandate administratively separate and independent from decision-makers.
  • Transparency and accessibility
    Decision-makers should understand the methods applied to COI research including how information was collected, which sources were consulted, which produced results and which did not. To avoid distortion, misunderstanding and promote accountability, COI should be made available to all relevant parties in an agreed standard format. Nothing is more disconcerting than to suddenly have an easily accessible format change from one publication to the next. Equally, when decision-makers are receiving training, the COI unit should be part of the process, presenting COI methods and research procedures for discussion and comment. Overtime, as the COI unit gains a reputation for accuracy and authority, its assessments will come to be accepted by all parties, leaving decision-makers and advocates time to concentrate on the individual aspects of the claim at hand.

5. Future Considerations

Now in its 30th year, the first steps of COI development within the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada are now being discussed, shared, further developed and applied in a large humanitarian context covering policy and practice in ways not initially envisaged. In short, COI is no longer a solitary art and practice — it is a well-respected, professional, global phenomenon.

Managing information to support refugee protection and humanitarian assistance has focussed attention on the need to ensure that core COI standards of relevance, reliability, timeliness and verifiability are recognized and applied in support of policy, planning, gap and risk analysis and resource mobilization. What thirty years ago was the practice of a few researchers in the little known art of information/documentation support for policy and asylum decisions is now a professional endeavour of some magnitude. Its authority derives from decisions by tribunals and superior courts where the information basis for decisions has been scrutinized and tested in relation to decisions on asylum claims. It has further benefited from the practice over time of a growing cadre of COI research professionals and field-based information managers in governments, NGOs and the UN system.

These events are noteworthy in themselves as they point to the recognition that such standards are central to decision-making; that without them decision-makers can and do get it wrong. Most importantly, they point to the power wrought by standards developed and shaped by COI professionals that now inform refugee protection, status determination and humanitarian information at all levels based on the shared belief that to be credible, information must be managed and shared according to standards that ensure its trustworthiness, timeliness and even-handedness.

Sharon Rusu

CEO OpCit Writers and Editors
Ottawa, Kanada
5. September 2019


[2] [Anm. ACCORD: Bei der Auflösung des ZDWF wurde dessen Archiv zum neu gegründeten ACCORD transferiert.]

[2] Laundering at large can best be defined as seeking to protect the identity of the source of the information by looking for corroborating information in the public domain

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