The Importance of Country Expert Reports

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
28 June 2024

We had the pleasure of representing and winning the case of an asylum seeker. A young woman who faced persecution in Iraq due to her profile as a westernised young woman. We argued that she would be exposed to risk of sexual violence as well as being targeted as an outsider for having a different dialect and coming from a Sunni background. We have used the expert to comment as to whether a Sunni Muslim woman, with western dress, a foreign accent and without male protection would be placed under significant risk in Iraq and how she would be treated by the local population and by the militias. We asked the expert to comment whether it would be reasonable for her to relocate within Iraq and whether there would be a risk that she would be kidnapped or killed and whether she would be able to continue working and integrate into Iraqi society. Based on the expert research, our representations, statements and work during and after the asylum interview, the application was successful. The expert confirmed that, based on his research and contextual understanding of Iraq, there are some patent risks associated with various aspects of our client’s profile and that she cannot be guaranteed to be safe in Iraq.

It is advisable whenever possible for human rights lawyers and those who represent asylum seekers to obtain their own independent Country Expert. The Home Office, reaching decisions regarding asylum, rely on country policy and information notes.

In 2017, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration provided a critical report about the production of Country Expert Reports by the Home Office. The report found that there were some fundamental problems with the Country of Origin Information (COI) as it was known at the time and that it required urgent attention. In order to achieve the purpose set out by UNHCR and recognised as in the Immigration Rules, COI must be not only reliable enough but must also be presented in a way that permits decision makers to reach their own objective judgement and decisions on an individual’s application. The conclusion of the report was that, as currently constructed, the Home Office COI products do not do this. The country policy and information notices combined country information and policy and this is wrong in principle as the effect is to directly use it towards the predetermined outcome, particularly where a significant body of asylum decision makers are inexperienced, unfamiliar with COI and have insufficient time to master every detail. They are likely to interpret anything labelled “policy” as something they are required to follow. In February 2023, there was a further report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, this time under coverage of statelessness. Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s role on this occasion was again to make recommendations about the content of information about conditions in countries outside the UK, which the Home Office complies and makes available for purposes connected with immigration and asylum to immigration officers and other officials. The Independent Advisory Group on Country Information is a panel of experts and practitioners created to assist the Chief Inspector in this task and they concluded that there was no fixed approach to covering issues of nationality and statelessness and, whilst there was no broad pattern of error or omission in coverage of these issues, the issues should have been covered consistently and systematically. The review found that the Home Office COIs on Myanmar and the occupied Palestine territories provided a reasonably accurate account but the one on Syria, for example, did not address the nationality and statelessness issues that affect significant types of individuals, such as Syrian Kurds.

Why is it important to have an accurate Country Expert Report?

Knowledge of the conditions in the country of origin is an important element in assessing the Applicant’s credibility and the use of an Expert Country Report can be used to substantiate a claim of persecution and provide first-hand knowledge of the country, the applicant’s region and provide a political analysis of the country’s situation and potential future developments. We use Country Expert Reports to contextualise the case within the situation of the country in question and to analyse the national laws, including law enforcement. We use a country expert to explain the cultural and religious practices, ethnicity, language, geography and history of the country and the expert may be better placed to give this information other than general research. The advantage of a specific Country Expert Report as opposed to the Home Office Report may also be that it is more case specific and may be better in revealing the situation on the ground. In choosing the expert, you must have evidence of their credentials and make sure that they evaluate any particular source. Make sure that the country expert is independent and impartial; that has an established knowledge and that the information provided is couched in objective rather than subjective tone. The expert may offer an opinion whether the narrative is credible within the context of the country’s situation, but the final stage of determination is with the Home Office or with the Immigration Tribunal.

Who is an Expert?

Expert evidence could come from an academic, experienced professional who is an expert in the country of origin or particular aspect of the case. Refugee law differs from other legal jurisdictions in the sense that one party is the applicant whilst the other party is the State. The focus of the judicial decision making is for the future rather than the past, specifically what harm might the applicant be subject to if a claim for protection is refused and she is forced to return to her country of origin.

Conclusion

Country experts provide different types of evidence, some are cultural, some provide background information on a country such as political conditions, availability of health services and some is legal such as foreign law nationality. Whilst I am not arguing that the evidence of country experts should be seen as more valuable than the country guidance, we should bear in mind that immigration Judges, sometimes the Home Office, might not always realise the limitation of their knowledge and it should be clear that the inclusion of experts knowledge into the asylum and immigration process is vital, the same way as it occurs in criminal and civil law.