What are the challenges faced by COI researchers and providers as a result of COVID-19? How are the principles of COI, and how is the process of research, challenged by COVID-19? Asylos members Misha Nayak-Oliver and Kristen Meagher outline individual and collective actions to overcome COVID-related challenges.

The  importance of thorough and accurate COI is magnified when global challenges, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, burden an already under-resourced immigration system. Resources that support the marginalised and vulnerable are further strained. For example, refugee resettlement and asylum procedures are currently suspended in many countries around the world. As outlined by Asylos’ Director, Sophie Kloos, “addressing the legal status of asylum seekers may not at first seem an urgency in the face of existential economic and health threats. Yet, it is a prerequisite to fulfilling fundamental needs.”

In this light, the production and use of COI remains critical; information can evidence the likelihood of persecution on return and the credibility of their individual testimonies. COI quality standards require that sources have relevance, neutrality, reliability, balance, currency, objectivity, accuracy, transparency and traceability, and usability. Selection and validation of sources and information, in a way which complies with COI quality standards, can be challenging in times of COVID-19. Nonetheless, as Asylos member Jasper Van der Kist (et al.) points out, incorporating quality standards is vital in producing a reliable body of knowledge and ensuring its positive impact on policy and decision-making. 

Incorporating quality standards is vital in producing a reliable body of knowledge and ensuring its positive impact on policy and decision-making.

COVID-19-related Research Challenges

The challenges to research posed by COVID-19 remind us that COI rarely shows a complete picture. The usual limitations around unreported events, language barriers, limitations to information from governments, and restrictions in access to information on events or situations that happened in specific locations are simply exacerbated by a slowdown in global activity. However, where COI is unavailable and cannot verify a particular claim, this does not mean that an event did not happen or that there is no risk of persecution upon return.

COI should always be traceable to the original source in order to validate information. With regards to secondary sources, delay or scarcity in the publication of information by international and intergovernmental organisations, non-governmental organisations, governmental/state organisations, research organisations and think tanks, and legislative and administrative bodies in countries of origin may be a challenge. 


Overcoming COVID-19 Challenges

As Asylos researchers, we found that when using primary sources, such as first-hand interviews it was best to factor in additional time to allow for any delays in correspondence which result from COVID-19. Recently the Americas team was working on a report on access and availability of mental healthcare in Jamaica, and we identified a suitable health expert to contact. Fortunately he was able to help us, but when we tried to follow-up for further information, they were unable to help us further as they were working on the front line against COVID-19. 

The challenges to research posed by COVID-19 reminds us that COI rarely shows a complete picture.

With regards to secondary sources, digital databases and search engines (such as ecoi.net) are still updated regularly. When searching databases, we found that using synonyms and words in different languages, and using search tools, improved the research gathering process. In particular it was helpful to look for specialised or country-specific sources with thematic or regional specialisation. We find academic sources of particular use; non-IT-based materials, such as hardcopy books, magazines and maps, may be more difficult to access, however, interviews, conferences, seminars and webinars are now more likely to be recorded and put online. Of course, no matter what source material you’re using - whether it’s traditional media or a form of evidence you’ve never used before, it must still be assessed according to the COI principles for source assessment: relevance, reliability, accuracy, currency, and balance. Where we have had no choice but to use more subjective or partial information, we balanced that against the other quality standards and made sure we provided a thorough evaluation of the sources for the reader's benefit.

Recommended Actions  

Drawing on lessons learned, individual COI researchers can identify COVID-related challenges before creating their research strategy and then: develop research topics from questions; develop more specific research questions for sub-topics; decide where to start the process and how to proceed; use search tools and formulate search terms in different languages, conduct research and select documents; and corroborate information found by cross-checking sources. The effects of COVID-19 mean that having a systematic research strategy will ensure effective and efficient research, with the information assessed and the most relevant pieces of information selected.

In, and beyond the Asylos community, network members can interact with other network participants in order to increase common knowledge about COVID-19 challenges faced in researching the subject-matter, or country, in question. Collaboration and partnerships within, and between, COI producing communities are important. Recommended actions include: mapping and assessing sources and information; sharing information on recent regional fact-finding missions undertaken by other organisations or institutions; sharing working methods and information management tools; sharing of specific knowledge and contacts; discussing specific questions; conducting cross-team or joint COI reports; reaching out and asking questions across our community; and participating in, or contributing to, subject-specific or country-specific workshops and webinars.

In times of COVID-19, collaboration within, and beyond, our COI producing communities is critical.