Informed decision-making in protection: the role of information

I.          INTRODUCTION

1.         Refugee protection, whether at the level of policy or of the individual  case, requires accurate and reliable information. Today, while this information is often available, either in written or electronic form, it may be difficult to consult or to retrieve in a useable form. Increasingly, information technology, which includes the collection of data, its analysis and conversion into electronic form, and its dissemination, offers the potential to integrate essential knowledge into the decision-making processes of Governments and international organizations.

2.         In her speeches to the Executive Committee in October 1992 and the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly the following month, the High Commissioner emphasized protection as the basis of her three-pronged approach of preparedness, prevention and solutions, stressing also the importance of "a coherent information strategy." Such a strategy must include not only public information in both countries of asylum and countries of origin but also systems for the collection, analysis and dissemination of information that is needed for the protection of refugees and for the solution of refugee problems.

3.         Accurate, up-to-date information about the causes of refugee and other coerced population movements is obviously essential for UNHCR to determine who should be accorded asylum and protection as well as to formulate solutions strategies, such as plans for voluntary repatriation, and to develop preventive approaches aimed a removing or reducing the reasons for flight. For Governments, too, reliable, readily accessible information relating to actual or potential causes of displacement, including the political and human rights situation in particular countries, is key to expeditious refugee determination procedures and to the identification of durable solutions. Such information also helps to identify those who do not require international protection, and can assist in the development, in other fora, of an effective international response to general migration questions.

4.         The need increases daily to address complex humanitarian problems resulting from war, internal conflict, famine, human rights violations and deteriorating social and economic structures. In response, measures aimed at preventing or resolving conflicts and other situations which result in exodus have been emphasized increasingly by the relevant organs of the United Nations, Governments, inter-governmental organizations and the international community generally. The efficacy of preventive measures depends on their timeliness, and on ensuring that comprehensive, coordinated action is taken, wherever possible, before a crisis occurs. In determining appropriate models and approaches for preventive activities, decision-makers require reliable information in order to evaluate options and inform decision-making on solutions. The United Nations, which a framework of consultation established by the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) in 1992, has recognized the need to strengthen the information-gathering capacity of each agency and that the harmonization of information systems is an essential precondition to effective, long-term cooperation.

II.         DEVELOPING INFORMATION SYSTEMS WITHIN UNHCR

5.         In seeking to enhance the international protection of refugees and the prevention and solution of refugee problems, UNHCR, as part of its information strategy, is endeavouring to fill the gaps which result from the lack of any integrated international mechanism for the collection and exchange of information needed to promote these goals. Through the Centre for Documentation on Refugees (CDR) of the Division of International Protection, and in close collaboration with Information Systems Section (ISS), UNHCR is developing and expanding its databases on conditions in countries facing or which are the source of refugee flows; international instruments; national legislation relevant to refugees and asylum-seekers; United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions relevant to UNHCR concerns and areas of operation; refugee literature; and case law relating to refugees and human rights.

6.         Since information will only contribute to informed decision-making if it is easily accessible and readily useable, CDR is devoting considerable effort to software applications that permit the organization and retrieval of data, thereby enhancing accessibility. Substantial progress has been made during the past twelve months, thanks to a number of important contributions, and several States members of the Executive Committee have responded enthusiastically to CDR's proposals for information-sharing. Limited resources have obliged UNHCR to give priority, pending greater focus on external access, to the collection of data, which is without doubt the aspect of greatest interest to many States. During the next year, CDR intends to develop practical information sharing and exchange arrangements, in particular, by building on the pilot project ACCESS, which currently provided direct on-line access to UNHCR/CDR databases for participating intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and States for an initial six-month period beginning on 1 October 1993.

III.        STANDARDS, LIMITATIONS AND LEGAL SAFEGUARDS

7.         UNHCR is in principle committee to the use of publicly available material which, if gathered and used on the basis of coherent standards, has the advantage of being open to review and verification. In developing its information contacts which Governments, CDR has used every opportunity to stress its concern not just with collecting information, but also with its reliability. No particular source can generally be ruled out; experience shows that a coherent body of information requires multiple sources, although in the view of UNHCR the general issue of information standards and corroboration might usefully be the subject of further debate.

8.         In developing and implementing an information strategy, UNHCR is also conscious of the need to ensure that national and international standards for the protection of personal data are observed; and that individuals do not suffer loss of protection through prejudicial disclosure.

IV.       INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

9.         UNHCR's initiatives have been designed in recognition of the need to avoid unnecessary duplication, ensure the integrity of the system of international protection, enhance programme design and implementation, divide responsibilities appropriately and effectively among States and international organizations, and provide the basis for action in the United Nations system, pending the development of a coherent international mechanism for information collection, verification and exchange. No single agency has the capacity or resources to collect and disseminate all the information required by UNHCR in fulfilling its various responsibilities. Consequently, during the last twelve months the Office has actively pursued the possibilities of cooperation with Governments, and CDR has participated closely in related intergovernmental initiatives, database development with other United Nations agencies and in the related information activities of NGOs. Cooperation provides one way to achieve helpful divisions of labour in regard to the collection, treatment and exchange of information.

V.        ELEMENTS OF AN INFORMATION POLICY FOR PROTECTION

10.        The basic elements of UNHCR's information systems strategy bearing particularly on the protection of refugees include the following:

(a)    Enhancing UNHCR access to accurate, up-to-date information about the causes of refugee and refugee-like movements, with a view to improved decision-making at Headquarters and field levels regarding those who should be accorded protection, sounder policy formulation with respect to voluntary repatriation as a durable solution, and in dealing with the preventive dimension of UNHCR's operations;

(b)    In cooperation with other international agencies, Governments and relevant NGOs, developing the capacity to collect, analyze, exchange and disseminate public-domain information relevant to UNHCR's protection responsibilities;

(c)    Contributing in appropriate fora to the development and standardization of criteria relating to the collection, accuracy and credibility of information;

(d)    At the request of Governments and/or intergovernmental bodies, assisting in the establishment and development of an information capability relating to refugee determination and refugee policy;

(e)    Maintaining and enhancing the capacity of the Office to serve as a resource for historical material relating to refugees and UNHCR, and for refugee literature, refugee law, and refugee status determination decisions;

(f)     Ensuring the better protection of refugees, inter alia, by promoting the observance of applicable international standards relating to data protection.

11.        The full implementation of an information strategy based upon the above elements, with the protection of refugees as its overall goal, will require the further strengthening and development of the Centre for Documentation on Refugees, both through the provision of adequate human, material and financial resources and through enhanced cooperation with States, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations in this field.