Country of Origin Information (COI) is an important element in refugee status determination procedures, as it helps to evaluate whether there is a well-founded risk of persecution or serious harm if the person would be returned to their country of origin. However, a number of organisations have consistently found that COI on nationality law and statelessness is often lacking, meaning very little information is available to decision-makers about the specific situation and treatment of stateless refugees and migrants in their countries of origin and profiles of those affected.
This blog examines one particular source of COI frequently used and referred to in refugee status determination procedures around the world: the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices published by the U.S. Department of State.
ENS’s Stateless Journeys initiative has sought to highlight this gap through its advocacy and engagement with refugee response actors, including COI providers, as well as the publication of a series of Country Position Papers (on Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Myanmar) in partnership with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. The Asylum Research Centre (ARC) Foundation, through its provision of thematic and country-specific reports, its review of government COI products used in refugee status determination procedures and its engagement as a member of ENS, has worked on statelessness related issues and addressed the quality and gap of COI on these issues where appropriate. Other key stakeholders have also drawn attention to this problem, for example, a UNHCR audit of the UK’s Statelessness Determination Procedure found that COI on nationality law and statelessness was often not readily made available, specifically sought or even used in an assessment of statelessness.
Source review: U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The U.S. Department of State’s congressionally mandated Country Reports on Human Rights Practices have been issued annually since 1976. They are now issued on nearly 200 countries and are relied upon to inform foreign aid, foreign policy and diplomatic engagements. They are also used as a tool for human rights defenders and governments to highlight human rights abuses and to hold regimes to account.
Crucially for the work of the Asylum Research Centre (ARC) Foundation, these country reports are also widely used in refugee status determination procedures throughout the world. They are relied upon by legal representatives in the preparation of cases, by state decision makers and are regularly cited by European governments, for example, in the Home Office’s country specific asylum policy, which provides guidance to decision-makers on assessing asylum claims in the UK. They also feature in guidance issued by UNHCR and in reports by the European Asylum Support Office, the body tasked with harmonising refugee decision-making across the European Union (EU). The European Court of Human Rights has “often attached importance” to the information contained in these reports.
In March 2018, the 2017 editions of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices were published, the first under President Trump’s administration. Upon reviewing the 2017 editions, ARC Foundation and others immediately noted that structural amendments had been made to the reports when compared to the 2016 editions (the last year of President Obama’s administration). The 2017 reports had generally become shorter and certain sections had been removed or renamed, significantly altering the content of the reports. In light of these developments and the importance of the U.S. Department of State reports to refugee status determination procedures around the world, ARC Foundation decided to undertake a comparative analysis of the full content of five U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan) covering events in 2016, and subsequent annual editions (i.e. covering events in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020).
The review identified several significant changes in terms of structure, language, improvements and omissions when comparing the 2016 edition with the 2017 report, most of which were repeated in subsequent reports. Most of the review’s observations related to the omission of human rights violations that continued to be documented by other publicly available sources at the time of publication. A summary of the review’s findings can be accessed here.
Lack of consistent approach in relation to statelessness
The review observed common themes across the years and across the reports in relation to how the U.S. Department of State addressed specific human rights violations and how it dealt with human rights abuses affecting particular profiles of people. Specifically of interest to this blog is that it became apparent that the Eritrea, Pakistan and Sudan reports lacked a consistent approach to issues pertinent to statelessness. The review documents the omission or presentation of incomplete information in relation to:
- The relevant laws and legal obligations pertaining to statelessness and nationality,
- Law and policy in practice, including birth registration,
- Profiling which population groups are at risk of statelessness,
- The situation and treatment of stateless persons by state and non-state actors and
- The livelihood possibilities as well as access to basic services (e.g. documentation, healthcare, education, housing, etc.) for stateless persons.
The Thematic Review includes country specific examples illustrating these issues. For example, information included in the 2016 Sudan report on who might be at risk of statelessness and the reasons for this was completely removed from all subsequent reports except for one sentence indicating that unregistered South Sudanese people may be at risk of statelessness. The 2019 report even noted under a newly inserted subtitle ‘Stateless Persons’ that this heading was “not applicable”. Similarly, the section of the 2019 report on Eritrea entitled ‘Stateless Persons’ included no information on the treatment of stateless persons nor who they may be, despite information elsewhere in the report (and previous reports) indicating situations that could lead to a risk of statelessness for Jehovah’s Witnesses. By not explicitly highlighting the issue of statelessness under relevant headings, information is likely to be overlooked. In the 2020 report, information relating to statelessness was omitted entirely despite publicly available sources continuing to document e.g. the problems facing Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Given the importance placed on the U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights reports as evidence in refugee status determination procedures worldwide, omitting human rights violations, suggesting (unfounded) improvements in the human rights situation, or not providing sufficient information, could result in protection claims being wrongly dismissed. This is particularly likely to affect people who are marginalised, exposed to multiple forms of discrimination and/or are victims of persecution or abuse from non-state actors, all of which are likely to affect stateless people or those at risk of statelessness.
Importance of COI on statelessness and nationality matters
As ENS has emphasised, COI information about statelessness and risks of statelessness as well as nationality laws and civil registration law, policy, and practice, is not only important to refugee status determination procedures, but also to improve the identification of stateless persons and referral to statelessness determination procedures (SDPs) - where these are available - as well as adequate assessment of statelessness in each individual case.
Gaps, omissions, or inaccuracies in COI on statelessness can mean that lawyers and individuals lack the supporting information they need to provide best evidence in their refugee or statelessness claims, or that determining authorities don’t have enough information about the situation of stateless people on a particular country of origin to make an appropriate decision and grant protection where it is due. Such challenges can lead to stateless refugees and migrants being disadvantaged in determination procedures and their cases taking longer to be decided, or even being denied protection and their fundamental rights being jeopardised.
It is due to these consequences that it is vital that COI providers take urgent action to improve the accuracy, reliability, and detail of information available to decision-makers and legal advisors on statelessness and nationality matters and that, in turn, both groups are informed about the range of issues surrounding statelessness, aware of the current limitations of COI on statelessness, and , where possible, engage in further COI research.