1. The UK Border Agency is responsible for considering asylum applications. In order to do so effectively the Case Owner must fully take into account relevant information from the applicant’s substantive interview and any evidence submitted on their behalf. This is then reviewed in conjunction with available country of origin information, relevant case law and the credibility of the applicant’s statements before a decision can be made on whether the applicant qualifies for protection.
2. Decision makers were required to assess the country information as objectively as possible and to be aware of as much information from as many sources as possible in order to conduct fair, efficient and well-informed decisions. The principal sources of country information used were reports by the Agency’s Country of Origin Information Service (COIS) available for the top 20 countries from where asylum seekers originated. Where there was limited or no country information, Case Owners adopted an inconsistent approach to identifying their own sources although guidance had been issued to direct Case Owners to use only sources approved by the COIS. There was evidence of some liaison with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but limited work with government departments overall to identify up-to-date country information.
3 There was a lack of efficiency and consistency where limited or no country information existed with no mechanism to pool knowledge obtained by individual Case Owners. The Agency had issued instructions to Case Owners to highlight that the absence of country information did not necessarily mean an alleged incident had not occurred. However, as the Agency did not collect information based on the particular nature of asylum claims, there was a risk that where no information was included in a country report, Case Owners might make an assumption that an applicant’s evidence was not credible. The Agency did not produce country information reports for all the countries whose nationals may undergo either the non-suspensive appeals process or the detained fast–track. As a result, people who had no right to appeal before being removed or whose cases were processed very quickly were at particular risk where there were inconsistent approaches to obtaining country information.
4. 17% of reasons for refusal letters (12 cases) from our file sample showed either the selective use of country information or unjustified assertions based on the evidence available. Over 13% of reasons for refusal letters (7 cases) included country information which was, at best, tangential to the issues relevant to the asylum claim.
5. There was no consistent co-ordination of the various documents produced by the Agency which
contained country information. Operational Guidance Notes provided policy advice to Case Owners but their purpose was not understood by all staff, the country information contained in them at times contradicted information in the COIS reports and at other times contained different sources of country information.
6. Country information was poorly referenced in 33% of cases sampled making it exceptionally difficult for applicants and legal representatives to check the information and consider whether the decision was justified. This included instances where the original source could not be found. There was no guidance on how country information should be referenced with consequent inconsistency in approach between individual teams. Inconsistent references were exacerbated by website links that had expired, did not exist or did not work.
7. A quality assurance framework had been developed in conjunction with UNHCR. This contained
questions on the appropriate use of country information. However, there was too much of a focus on the scoring mechanism devised by the Agency to assess whether a decision was ‘fully effective’ and insufficient focus on improving the individual elements of lower quality decisions.
8. The Agency was only able to provide 84 of the 100 files requested and only 42 of these were provided for the original period requested.