Why legal aid?
Put simply, we believe that legal aid is one of the most effective, empowering ways to ensure that every person's fundamental rights are upheld.
Legal aid doesn't just count today; it enables people to live in peace and safety, receive medical treatment, work, and send their children to schools for many years to come. At the same time, it challenges the injustices within procedures, fights against the horrific living conditions which violate asylum seekers' rights in refugee camps, and holds those in power accountable for upholding international law.
At SolidariTee, we believe access to information, representation, and legal guidance is a fundamental right.
But perhaps a better way of answering this question is to ask, "what happens when someone seeking asylum DOESN'T have access to legal aid?"
Frequently, unjust rejections. In the worst case, unfair rejections leave those who have fled their homes at risk of deportation, back to the life-threatening persecution they first sought to escape. In the best case, someone who did have a legitimate claim to asylum but was rejected because they were unable to access information about the criteria and process involved, may be forced to spends months or years appealing the decision, living in refugee camps which are little more than tents or container boxes throughout this time.
In Greece, the reality is that those who are rejected are often not deported. Instead, they frequently end up homeless, living in destitution and sleeping in parks or abandoned buildings. Without refugee status, people do not have the right to work, or even visit a doctor, and yet for someone who does meet the definition of a refugee, returning to the country from which they fled is impossible.
What does legal aid look like in practice?
Legal aid refers to the provision of free, expert, professional guidance to those undergoing the Refugee Status Determination process - in other words, those who have fled persecution and are seeking protection under international refugee law. The process of seeking asylum is a notoriously complex legal process, and takes place in a country and language that asylum seekers are often unfamiliar with. Legal aid involves a combined team of lawyers, caseworkers, translators and interpreters, psychologists and protection officers. It can involve:
information sessions & resources
These ensure asylum seekers are informed of their rights, obligations and of the key steps within the process, in a language that is accessible to them. Information can be provided in person, via hotlines, or even via social media. Some NGOs, such as Mobile Info Team, choose to do this through social media as well as in person - MIT reach on average 30,000 people per week in this way.
Families who have been forced to flee their homes may not have been able to escape together, and may not always have control over which country they reach within Europe. Everyone has the right to live in safety with their family, but it is far from straightforward to transfer an asylum claim from one country to another, with the process often taking years even with the help of a lawyer.
medical and psychological services
Camps are dangerous, scary places to live. In addition to the violence and persecution from which someone fled, additional retraumatisation may occur through both the living conditions and asylum process itself. Psychological support both enables someone to better be able to express what they have been through and cope with the process, and ensures that those with additional vulnerabilities or needs are able to access treatment and protection. Additionally medical and psychologist reports often form crucial evidence within an asylum procedure.
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asylum interview preparation
These are 1:1 sessions which take place with a caseworker and/or lawyer, which help asylum seekers to understand their rights and obligations within the process, and gather and organise the evidence they need to represent themselves and tell their story.
Many refugees having been forced to flee their homes at hours' or days' notice, without being able to bring any paperwork or identification with them, so support in collecting the required evidence is crucial.
Additionally, trauma affects the ways in which memories are stored and recalled, and given that asylum seekers may have had to wait in camps for months or years before their asylum interview, expert guidance is crucial.
translation and interpretation
In Greece, an asylum interview takes place in either Greek or English, which may not be spoken at all by those who have fled other countries.
Asylum processes are so specific that even tiny mistranslations can be perceived as inconsistencies in an asylum seeker's story, which can in turn reduce their perceived credibility and chance at receiving refugee status. Expert translation and cultural mediation is crucial in order for asylum seekers to make themselves understood and access their rights.
In reality, legal aid is most powerful when it is holistic.
The team at a legal aid NGO might support one individual client in a range of ways. Work at a legal aid NGO might include escorting one client to the hospital for blood tests, fighting for better accommodation for another client with specific vulnerabilities that make a refugee camp even more dangerous, and providing interview preparation to individual clients as well as group information sessions, all whilst also writing advocacy reports and engaging with strategic litigation, to tackle procedural violations at the national or international level.
Why is legal aid so underfunded?
Asylum services were not prepared to deal with the unprecedented numbers of refugees coming to Europe in 2015. Due to political disputes and the rise of far-right rhetoric towards immigration, asylum services have since remained underfunded and understaffed. As a result of this, asylum seekers currently in Greece frequently receive almost no information from the authorities regarding their asylum interview which will determine whether they are granted refugee status. This interview is of paramount importance to an asylum seeker, as it will determine whether they can remain in that country or not.
Does SolidariTee only fund legal aid?
Legal aid is the type of aid that we have historically chosen to focus on supporting, but our mission more broadly is to create lasting change in the 'refugee crisis' through supporting empowering, long-term forms of aid. In some places, such as the Western Balkans, legal aid in the form of interview preparation isn't what makes the most sense - asylum services are almost entirely inaccessible, and there is a large population of people being forced to migrate in vulnerable situations, facing a complete lack of services and frequent violence at the borders. That's why we also fund work in vital, related services which fit our mission, such as translation, protection, information and advocacy. To read about the 8 NGOs we are currently supporting, click here:
What are conditions like for those seeking asylum in countries such as Greece?
Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people have been or currently are forced to live in dangerous, overcrowded camps while awaiting their asylum interviews. Living in a refugee camp is unbelievably difficult. Conditions are unsanitary, overcrowded and are often met with a lack of basic supplies, such as clothes. Pressurised circumstances and untreated trauma often leads to violence, drug abuse and further mental health difficulties.
Of those not living in camps, a large portion of the refugee and asylum seeking population is currently homeless, sleeping in abandoned buildings and parks. Such desperate situations have led to an increase in violence, sexual exploitation, and severe mental health conditions. No one should have to suffer this long in legal limbo, and in such troubling conditions.
Legal aid NGOs offer the legal guidance that refugees require in order to successfully make their asylum case. Crucially, it ensures that highly vulnerable individuals are granted the safety and security that they might not otherwise reach.
Asylum seekers homeless due to overcrowding of camps, Thessaloniki, August 2019
What can a donation achieve?
As a grant-giving organisation, we choose to support NGOs who are effective, efficient and sustainable. A relatively little money goes a long way in helping to uphold the rights of those who have fled violence and persecution, with just £27 being enough to fund two volunteer caseworkers for a day in Greece.
How Mobile Info Team Helps
Mobile Info Team's family reunification support allowed for Zania, along with three children, to join her husband and their father in Germany.
"Honestly, Mobile Info Team helped me a lot. I told them my story – that I was pregnant and in a very bad situation. The caseworker on my case was very good, and I want to thank her personally very much. She helped me with each stage of my file. There is a big difference between Mobile Info Team and the other organizations. I am very thankful for all members of the Mobile Info Team, because they are helping cases just like me.”
How Fenix Helps
"Another client told us she had lost her brother years ago while they both fled violence. While she sat in our office and one of our lawyers showed her photos of missing persons on the ICRC website, she froze and pointed at her brother’s photograph. Today we got the call from ICRC confirming he is in fact the brother and is also looking for her. They will be put in touch this week"
2nd August 2019
An anecdote from Amanda Munñoz de Toro, the Executive Director of Fenix. Fenix's support in Lesvos is ensuring the reunification of hundreds of families across Europe, and asylum success of thousands.