BRISTOL, United Kingdom — Vulnerable people fleeing persecution and human rights abuses is not new. Following the atrocities of World War II, the 1951 Refugee Convention came about, guaranteeing “everybody the right to apply for asylum” in a country that has signed the Convention. However, there are many misconceptions when it comes to refugees and what is termed a “refugee crisis.” Alexa Netty, the Executive Director of SolidariTee, spoke to The Borgen Project. Netty says the greatest misconception is that global citizens feel there is a choice in accepting or rejecting refugees. Referring to the Refugee Convention, she explains that allowing an individual refuge is engrained in international law. It is a human right that is applicable to all and not a subject that is up for debate. Many organizations aim to assist vulnerable people through legal aid for asylum seekers.
SolidariTee is a charity that supports asylum seekers worldwide by raising money in multiple ways, including selling t-shirts designed by refugees. The t-shirts also serve as an important conversation starter and a visual representation of solidarity with refugees. The grant money SolidariTee raises goes solely to NGOs that support the provision of legal aid for asylum seekers. Though often underacknowledged, legal aid is one of the most powerful and long-lasting ways to help vulnerable refugees.
Currently, “almost 66 million people” are displaced worldwide due to “conflict, violence and persecution,” About a third of these people are asylum seekers. More than 80% of “refugees find protection in neighboring” countries rather than further afield.
Legal aid is “the provision of free, expert and professional guidance” to “those who have fled persecution” and are waiting to have their asylum claims assessed by their host country. These people “are seeking protection under international refugee law.” People often overlook legal aid when donating to help asylum seekers as the results are less immediately visible than giving food or clothes. Yet, the reward is far greater and long-term. Legal aid for asylum seekers prevents the unjust deportations of legitimate claimants and allows people to start a new life in a safe place.
The Importance of Legal Aid
Legal aid is crucial to help vulnerable people who must undergo the notoriously complex Refugee Status Determination process. On top of the trauma endured in their home countries, a host country is unfamiliar territory and refugees often do not speak the local language. Therefore, navigating the perplexing intricacies of the asylum procedure is a daunting ordeal.
In the United Kingdom, the “proportion of asylum appeals allowed in the year ending December 2020 was 39%.” Legal aid in the early stages would reduce the chance of an unsuccessful case that would require an appeal, benefiting both the asylum seeker and the government. Appeal processes are incredibly costly for governments; therefore, providing legal aid from the start would also alleviate pressure on the authorities.
A Complex System
In most places, the receiving state does not provide legal aid, nor does not provide adequate legal assistance. As a result, many asylum seekers go into their decisive first interview without the guidance of a lawyer. The level of specificity required in the interviews means that many legitimate claimants are often rejected.
Furthermore, many of these interviews take place months or years after fleeing persecution. In fact, “four out of five refugees have been refugees for more than five years.” This means details are often blurred or forgotten. Additionally, PTSD and trauma arising from fleeing persecution and undertaking a life-threatening journey to safety also affect the recollection of memories. This can lead to unintentional but detrimental inconsistencies in applications.
Many asylum seekers will need professional psychological reports as proof of memory loss or mental health issues. The majority of asylum seekers need legal experts to help them meet “short deadlines for providing evidence” or to gather extremely specific evidence, such as the names of the villages passed through to reach the country of refuge.
Understanding the process is a key part of a successful claim. A lawyer at European Lawyers in Lesvos, one of the NGOs supported by SolidariTee, stated that many asylum seekers do not mention the persecution they endure. Asylum seekers instead emphasize how they would contribute to the host country’s economy in order to avoid appearing as a burden or a potential drain to the country. Just five minutes with a lawyer would direct an asylum seeker onto a path of explaining their experience of persecution, which would show they have a legitimate claim to asylum.
The Efficacy of Legal Aid for Asylum Seekers
Netty champions legal aid. She says, “Asylum preparation works. Interview preparation works. We can give people their rights; we can prevent unjust deportations.” SolidariTee raised more than £103,000 in the 2020-2021 academic year. This money provided six NGOs with grants for legal aid. In the coming year, the organization will be supporting eight NGOs, the most it has ever supported. Netty recognizes that “compassion fatigue is a problem,” but stresses that “people really need to buy into the fact that they can be agents of change.”
At European Lawyers in Lesvos, the average rate of granted asylum claims is 74.5%, in comparison with the “national average of 46.5%.” European Lawyers in Lesvos has provided legal aid to more than 12,000 asylum seekers through one-on-one consultations and group information sessions. Furthermore, the organization has helped achieve recognition for more than 1,000 people “as eligible to be reunited with their family members in other European countries.”
Most refugees still do not have access to the legal aid they need to assist in a successful asylum claim. This is clear in countries such as the U.K. where only “41% of initial decisions” lead to the granting of asylum. With the help of NGOs and charities such as SolidariTee, the importance of legal aid for asylum seekers is becoming increasingly known. As these organizations continue to grow and expand with the help of donors, more and more asylum seekers will be able to start a new life in safety.
– Hope Browne