The country analyst - smart and neutral

SEM's country analyses are a sought-after commodity. They present a candid picture of the situation in countries from which large numbers of asylum seekers originate, and explain how this affects the local population and their everyday lives. Country analyses are one of the sources of information on which SEM bases its asylum practice.

The Afghanistan analyst is asked whether he did not see the crisis in the Hindu Kush coming much earlier. Well, most observers expected the collapse of the Afghan government, he replies – including him. But few could have foreseen the abrupt change that happened in August last year, the swift takeover of power by the Taliban within just a few days: "After all, the speed of it also surprised the Taliban themselves." When the US troops withdrew, it was clear to everyone that the Afghan government could not survive on its own. It all depended on the extent to which the Americans would still be involved in Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of their military. But the Americans completely gave up their presence in the country, as we know today. "Nobody foresaw the dynamic that the complete US withdrawal triggered," says the analyst soberly.

He is keen to state that country analysts do not make forecasts or discuss probabilities: "We simply describe the state of affairs in the countries we cover. Who is in power? What is the human rights situation and the supply situation? Who is persecuting whom, and what protection mechanisms are in place? This research work is our primary task." This information provides the basis for the asylum practice applied to the respective country.

The need to verify sources

"When events in a country occur as rapidly as they did in Afghanistan, the asylum specialists need daily updates on the situation on the ground, as do other sections at SEM," he continues. This is anything but easy, especially in such crisis situations: "Initially, the media and social media channels were pretty much our only sources of information." Fortunately he was well networked with analysts from other European asylum authorities, with non-governmental and human rights organisations, and with Switzerland's diplomatic missions. Because to make a country analysis, you require a solid source base – that is, information must not only be verified, but also confirmed by at least one other source.

Especially on social media, the risk of being misled by fake news or disinformation is relatively high. "It may well be that two Twitter accounts share the same information, i.e. seem to confirm one other. But in some circumstances they have succumbed to what is called 'false confirmation' because they are both referring to a single source that is spreading misinformation." That is why it is important to know the context of the source, for example, what interests it is pursuing, the analyst goes on to explain. "Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch are transparent and always document their methodology. But they also follow their own agenda, just as the US or Iranian governments have their own interests at heart when they publish reports."

Getting out of the office

The country analyst prefers to see for himself anyway, to go on site. The SEM analysts go on fact-finding missions to hear how the local people in the countries of origin assess their situation. This not only helps to close information gaps, but also gives points of view other than those in the public reports. Often it is precisely this experience that gives the analysts completely new insights. And experiencing everyday life in these countries is also important: "We can't understand all aspects of life while sitting at our desks in Bern."

The SEM analyst does not like to think too much about how his reports might affect asylum practice: "Our yardstick is the reality on the ground, which we present as objectively as possible. Our expertise is on the country of origin; we don't influence Switzerland's asylum policy; we don't make recommendations." The difficult task of applying the information in his reports in asylum practice is the responsibility of the asylum procedure specialists. He does not make policy, he continues, but his work can of course be politicised, because his factual statements are not to everyone's liking. "We analysts try to present facts in a balanced way, giving a neutral presentation of all sides. But by definition, politicians see things differently – along party lines."

Nineteen-member team for 118 countries

The Analysis Section in SEM’s Asylum Directorate comprises two units – the Country Analysis Unit and the Migration Analysis Unit. The section employs a total of twenty staff members, who last year provided a total of 1,000 services on 118 countries. The staff research how the political and social situation in countries of origin is developing, and draw up country analyses.

In the Migration Analysis Unit, the staff monitor and analyse current trends and developments in asylum migration and irregular migration. The aim here is to show which routes are being used by migrants, and how the countries along these routes are reacting to them etc. On the basis of this information, asylum application forecasts can be made.