Q&A: An online protection and research tool to aid asylum process

George Okoth-Obbo, head of the UN refugee agency's Division of International Protection Services discusses the new online version of Refworld, an innovative online protection tool that provides invaluable information for those who have to make decisions on refugee status.

George Okoth-Obbo, Director, UNHCR's Division of International Protection Services.   © UNHCR/S.Hopper

GENEVA, June 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency recently unveiled a new online version of its Refworld, an innovative online protection tool that provides invaluable information for those who have to make decisions on refugee status. The state-of-the-art application was developed in-house by UNHCR's Electronic Publishing Unit and the Status Determination and Protection Information Section in the agency's Division of International Protection Services (DIPS). Senior Public Information Officer William Spindler forwarded some questions about Refworld to George Okoth-Obbo, Director of DIPS. Excerpts from his response:

What is Refworld and why did UNHCR create it?

Refworld is an internet-based website - you can find it at www.refworld.org - and it is essentially a tool for protection. Specifically, it provides the kind of information most likely to be needed by those who are making protection-related decisions, such as refugee status determination, resettlement, voluntary repatriation and so on. Refworld has a wealth of information related to conditions in countries of origin, the domestic and international legal regimes that can impact persons of concern to UNHCR. It also contains policy and guidance that can help decision-makers, be they UNHCR staff around the world, national asylum officers, judges, lawyers and so on.

In terms of why we created this tool, I would have to say that our desire to raise the quality of decision-making was paramount. When trying to determine whether someone is a refugee, access to accurate, reliable and updated information is vital. An ill-informed decision based on unreliable or outdated information could have very serious consequences for those concerned.

There is also the notion that a certain consistency is established, not to mention economies, when all decision-makers have at their disposal one repository of qualified information resources.

Refworld has been in existence for some 15 years in CD/DVD format. Aside from being online, in what way is this new version different?

The main benefits are the new design, search facilities and updating capacity. We are updating it almost on a daily basis and this is crucial for decision-making, particularly when decision-makers are faced with sudden crises. We are also now providing this service free of charge. The emphasis is on supporting those who need to make sometimes difficult decisions while ultimately serving our beneficiaries: refugees.

What kind of information does Refworld focus on?

The information contained in Refworld relates to facts about countries, legal documents and policy related matters. Importantly, the sources of information are drawn from a wide array of sources such as UN agencies - UNHCR included - governments, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations, and others. Therefore, one can discern and weigh the various pieces of information to arrive at a well-informed decision. We follow rigorous standards and apply best practices to ensure that the quality and content of the information contained here are as relevant, authoritative and balanced as possible.

Who are the major users of Refworld?

Our own staff certainly are major users, as are government officials. Judges, lawyers, those working for NGOs and researchers are also frequent users and we also know that refugees themselves have occasionally used Refworld.

How will Refworld impact UNHCR operations?

For our own staff, it will mean they can quickly find the information they need, such as UNHCR policy positions, Executive Committee conclusions and so on. In terms of the quality of our work, I strongly believe there will be a discernible impact both in terms of evidentiary support for our decisions and guidance for new or even veteran staff on a variety of issues.

What can users worldwide expect from Refworld in terms of helping them in their work with refugees?

First and foremost, they can expect UNHCR to deliver a high-quality product that we will do our best to maintain, enhance, develop and keep up to date. Again, I reiterate that there are no more charges or fees to use the product, nor will that change in the future. Beyond this, I think that a similar impact could be felt for users worldwide as with our own staff.

What are the future plans for Refworld?

For the moment we will consolidate the tool, working out any trouble spots such as technical glitches. Later on in the year we will be adding new search features, personalization tools and much more. We will also take time to go back to our users and get their ideas and suggestions on how to improve Refworld. This is truly a needs-based tool and the ultimate end-users need to drive the way forward and tell us what they require.