Why legal aid

The numbers of people fleeing persecution, conflict and being forcibly displaced is on the rise. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) working alongside other international organisations provides regular and updated statistics – here and here, of refugees and asylum seekers globally. In light of the numbers of displaced people, and the challenges many face in accessing protection, the need for legal representation for asylum seekers worldwide is immense.

The issues legal aid will address

People forcibly fleeing their countries of origin and seeking asylum elsewhere are faced with a huge challenge of trying to get recognition as refugees or persons deserving of legal protection. No two countries share similar refugee policies or practices. Some countries have obliged themselves to follow international law while others have national refugee frameworks, yet others do both. In either circumstance, countries fail to live up to the standards laid out in the law when they fail to protect forcibly displaced persons and refugees from being returned to situations where they are likely to face persecution or risk to their lives. This failure reveals a gap in protection in the countries’ systems.

Legal aid providers, including lawyers – individually or backed by law firms, legal aid organisations, legal aid clinics attached to institutions, and community paralegals help fill the vacuum or gaps in protection when they represent asylum seekers and refugees, and in so doing, remind governments of their obligation to uphold concepts of human rights and consequently help displaced people find durable solutions.

Therefore, legal aid addresses pertinent issues in the access to fair and effective processes for determining displaced persons status and protection needs; as well as access to durable solutions such as resettlement and complementary pathways.

Importance of legal aid

Displaced people are able to navigate bureaucratic and often complex legal systems, through provision of quality legal representation or legal aid, to gain recognition and subsequent protection.  For example, an asylum seeker who receives legal assistance at the outset of their refugee application process or during refugee status determination stands a higher chance of obtaining refugee status than one who doesn’t. The same is true for rejected asylum seekers who receive legal representation during asylum claim appeal processes. In some host countries though, even the chances of success during asylum claim processes become slimmer for many reasons – such as costs of an appeal and time required to follow through the appeal. It is a fact that legal aid provided at early stages of the refugee determination process reduces the chances of an appeal, benefitting both the asylum seeker and the decision-making authority – in terms of costs.  Legal aid for asylum seekers is the crucial first step in obtaining protection and enjoyment of basic human rights.

How the RiE Programme assists lawyers and legal aid providers supporting asylum seekers

Just like refugee policies and frameworks differ from country to country, grounds for persecution are also varied, individual and hugely depend on knowledge of the law and the context. Legal aid provision is in many contexts sparse. There are very few institutions globally that teach international refugee law as a substantive part of the law degree. Legal education worldwide provides too little training in refugee law, and even fewer institutions teach international human rights law. This leaves lawyers representing refugees having to work in isolation and limits access to information and resources.

The Rights in Exile (RiE) Programme provides that information as well as access to resource persons. The Programme puts together, in one accessible place, resources to assist lawyers and legal aid organisations working globally with asylum seekers during RSD and other legal processes. Resources include: –

How the RiE Programme assists displaced people in situations where it is difficult to access legal aid 

The Programme is also for asylum seekers and refugees, particularly many in the Global South who may not have access to legal aid tailored for them. The Other Resources page lists newspapers developed by refugees, refugees’ websites, and Diaspora organizations, useful for searching for missing relatives. The Pro Bono legal assistance page serves to link refugees with legal support, and has Self-Help Kits to guide in the process of writing a statement for Refugee Status Determination Interview. Currently, the kits are available in Arabic , English, and Spanish.