Dr Khalid Koser
Chair of the UK Independent Advisory
Group on Country Information (IAGCI)
“Current trends in the production of reliable and
up-to-date Country of Origin Information”
Ü Eurasylum: The UK Independent Advisory Group on Country Information (IAGCI), which succeeded the Advisory Panel on Country Information (APCI), was established in March 2009 by the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency. The IAGCI makes recommendations to the Chief Inspector about the content of material produced by the UK Border Agency’s Country of Origin Information Service. In particular, the IAGCI evaluates the content of all UK Border Agency COI material relating to countries designated or proposed for designation for the Non-Suspensive Appeals (NSA) list, and reviews the efficiency, effectiveness, and consistency of approach of COI material produced by the UK Border Agency. Can you guide us through the key activities, methods and outputs of the work of the IAGCI?
Ü Dr Khalid Koser: Our principal activity is to review COI Reports produced by UK Border Agency’s COI Service, and in particular to assess the extent to which they are accurate, balanced, and impartial. COI Service currently produces substantial COI Reports on the top 20 asylum intake countries in the UK, and short Key Documents for the next 30 intake countries. IAGCI has focused so far only on COI Reports, mainly because the significant majority of asylum applications in the UK come from the top 20 intake countries. We approach reviews of COI Reports in two main ways. Normally we review individual reports. In addition we may also identify cross-cutting issues and review how this particular issue is dealt with across all 20 reports. For our meeting in May 2011, for example, we will focus on the individual reports for Albania, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Pakistan, and also review the way that gender issues are considered across all 20 reports.
IAGCI reviews all 20 COI Reports and at least two cross-cutting issues in every two year period. The order in which we consider reports is primarily determined by how recently the report has been reviewed either by IAGCI or previously by APCI. At the same time there is flexibility in our work plan which allows us to consider reports out of sequence, for example where there is a sudden increase in applications. The Refugee and Asylum Forum, which is a stakeholder forum convened three times a year by the Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA may also suggest agenda items. Our work plan is confirmed by the Independent Chief Inspector.
The way we conduct our work is to commission experts to undertake reviews. While a number of IAGCI members are experts in particular countries in their own rights, and have expertise on asylum and human rights issues, we have determined that it would be inappropriate for members also to undertake reviews. Invitations to tender for review are disseminated widely, including on the website of the Independent Chief Inspector and via a variety of other relevant websites. Applications are submitted to me, as Chair, and I make an initial assessment on the basis of three main criteria: (a) demonstrated expertise on the country or topic; (b) sound knowledge of migration/asylum/human rights policies, laws, and procedures as they pertain to claims for protection; and (c) consideration of any potential conflict of interest. On the basis of this assessment I then submit a recommendation to the Independent Chief Inspector, and his office commission reviewers. A flat fee is paid for reviews. We tend mainly to receive tenders from UK-based academics, although we have also commissioned independent experts and consultants based outside the UK.
Reviews are initially approved by me and after the author has made revisions as necessary are shared with COI Service, who are asked to respond to comments and recommendations within the reviews. These reviews and responses are then considered at a meeting of IAGCI, attended by the members, representatives of COI Service, and where possible the reviewers as well. IAGCI usually meets three times a year.
In terms of output: All of the reviews commissioned by IAGCI, as well as responses by COI Service, and full minutes of our meetings, are published on the website of the Independent Chief Inspector (http://icinspector.independent.gov.uk/country-information-reviews), as are our terms of reference, a full description of our working methods, a list of members, and all invitations to tender.
Ü Eurasylum: According to its Terms of Reference, the IAGCI must also assess the sources, methods of research, and quality control used by the UK Border Agency to help ensure that these support the production of COI material which is as accurate, balanced, impartial and up to date as possible. In practical terms, how are such quality assurance activities implemented by the IAGCI?
Ü Dr Khalid Koser: Our quality assurance focuses on the outputs from COI Service, namely COI Reports and Key Documents. COI Service has its own internal quality assurance processes for example relating to the way that these outputs are researched, reviewed and approved.
IAGCI implements its recommendations in three main ways. First, as a result of each meeting, specific recommendations are made directly to COI Service. In most cases these recommendations concern changes to the reports being reviewed. On some occasions they may relate to wider issues, for example to the way that reports are structured, or sources are referenced within them. Our two year rolling work plan means that each report is reviewed again within two years, and reviewers are explicitly requested to consider to what extent recommendations made in the previous review have now been implemented.
Second, at the end of each meeting I prepare a short report for the Independent Chief Inspector, in which I identify more strategic issues that he may consider raising directly with the Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency. Examples of these sorts of issues include access to translation services by COI Service, and issues related to the internal capacity at COI Service to continue to produce good quality COI Reports.
Finally, I believe that our policy of publishing all our reviews, along with extensive minutes on our meetings, also aids accountability.
Overall, having been involved with APCI first as a member and later as Chair, and now as Chair of IAGCI, I am satisfied that the quality of COI Reports has increased significantly over the last five years or so. They tend to use a wider range of sources than previously, present a more impartial view of current issues, and various innovations have made them more up to date than previously. The work of APCI and IAGCI has been instrumental in encouraging these improvements.
Ü Eurasylum: Can you discuss, briefly, a few noteworthy COI reports produced by the IAGCI and comment on the ways in which these might have impacted on the approach taken by the UK Border Agency to assess asylum claims by nationals of specific of countries of origin? In other words, how would you assess the likely policy impact of the work of the IAGCI?
Ü Dr Khalid Koser: IAGCI does not have a mandate to evaluate how asylum claims are assessed by the UKBA. Our terms of reference are to ensure that the Country of Origin Information used in the asylum process is up to date, balanced, and impartial. Clearly Country of Origin Information plays a critical role in the asylum decision-making process, and reliable decisions cannot be made without accurate COI. The Independent Chief Inspector has recently undertaken an inspection specifically considering how Country of Origin Information is used in the asylum process, and, once concluded, the report on this inspection will be published on his website as are all inspection reports.
It is worth mentioning the role of IAGCI as regards countries being considered for designation for the Non-Suspensive Appeals (NSA) list. This is a list of countries from which asylum seekers have no guarantee of being able to remain on UK territory during the period of appeal. The British government made a commitment that APCI would consider all COI relating to these countries before any designation is made, and the Independent Chief Inspector has extended this commitment to the mandate for IAGCI. There have been several examples where reviews by APCI found that the COI on particular countries was inadequate, and as a result designation to the NSA list was postponed until the COI was revised to the satisfaction of the panel. Finally, in considering the policy impact of the work of IAGCI, I would argue that the group, and its predecessor APCI, have helped introduce a culture of evaluation not just within COI Service, but across the UK Border Agency more widely. While the work of APCI was initially viewed with scepticism and even suspicion within COI Service, the work of IAGCI is now generally viewed as supporting the Service to improve its products.