Law firms step up pro bono support to address European refugee crisis

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 10 September 2016 13:52 GMT

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

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To support humanitarian and advocacy work in response to the European refugee crisis, TrustLaw facilitated a cross-border research partnership between the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Latham & Watkins and a consortium of local legal experts, public international law consultants and academics on legal issues related to border control, asylum and refugee resettlement.

Since 2015, more than 1.2 million refugees have sought sanctuary at Europe’s borders, fleeing ongoing conflict and instability in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and elsewhere. Without safe routes to seek refugee status, over 3000 people have drowned at sea as they flee wars and persecution.

In the face of this grave humanitarian and policy crisis the IRC, a global humanitarian and advocacy organisation, requested urgent legal advice from TrustLaw concerning border control, boat push-backs, maritime rescue, discriminatory asylum procedures, and family reunification. Within two weeks, Latham & Watkins, in partnership with lawyers in Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, a public international law consultancy, Lex Specialis and the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, produced 42 memoranda of advice in advance of the 17 March 2016 EU Council meeting.

Spanning 12 jurisdictions, the legal research was used to contribute to local advocacy work in Greece and at the intergovernmental level, informing advocacy efforts aimed to influence policy responses. The lawyers have since expanded the research to help IRC examine barriers to the implementation of legal pathways for the transfer of vulnerable refugee groups trapped in Greece, and to identify alternative routes to protection.

“We examine how existing policies could be better used, for example, to ease blocks in relocation of refugees from Greece to other EU member states, which would help thousands of people who have fled bloody wars and conflicts, to at last find a place they can be safe and call home”, shares Melanie Ward, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy at the IRC.

On 20 March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal came into force, effectively shutting the door on any new arrivals trying to seek asylum in Europe. Widely regarded by human rights advocates as illegal, the deal outlines an agreement by Turkey to take back all irregular migrants attempting to cross into the Greek islands, in exchange for political concessions and €6 billion.

In light of the EU-Turkey deal, urgency for legal assistance in Greece is mounting to protect refugee rights, to ensure procedural fairness in refugee status determination proceedings, to address arbitrary detention, and to support the fundamental right to family unity. Beyond their indispensable role on the ground, lawyers are imperative in ensuring that high-level legal and policy dialogues are grounded in, and consistent with, international legal standards, as well as regional and domestic law.   

“This is where the international expertise from Trustlaw and Latham & Watkins is helping us immensely”, says Ward. “The depth of their knowledge has strengthened our policy recommendations towards European leaders and beyond, to put in place measures that better equip us for the new norm of global displacement.”

As of September 2016, over 59,000 people were trapped in precarious and uncertain circumstances in Greece. Ongoing legal support is key to address the overwhelming human suffering caused by war and persecution around the world today. The cooperation and dedication shown by the IRC and the pro bono lawyers on this project demonstrate just how that can be done.  

The project won the 2016 TrustLaw Collaboration Award.