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The path to safety is difficult, long and slow

 

17 May 2019

To mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia we look at how A&O supports LGBT+ refugees

Turkey ought to have been a place of relative safety.

He had escaped his native Iraq fearing for his life, after his father discovered that he was gay, beat him severely and finally denounced him to ISIS.

His stay in Turkey was supposed to be a temporary one while he sought resettlement in the U.S. Yet despite its more liberal laws, it has not proved to be a safe place in which to wait for resettlement.

The homophobic harassment has continued, he’s struggled to hold down a job due to ill health and in 2018 - unable to get vital medical or financial assistance - he was eventually forced to live on the streets and beg for food. Meanwhile his application for resettlement has become stuck due to increasingly hostile U.S. refugee policies, held up now for nearly three years.

Dipti Vekaria, a transactions executive in A&O’s securitisation department in London, has followed his desperate journey closely. She is part of a pro bono team supporting the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) in providing free legal support for refugees escaping persecution.

Together with associates Urvi Gudka in London and Raphael Chabaneix in Paris, she communicates regularly with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) via IRAP and the U.S. authorities to check how his case is progressing. She is in touch with him directly every month or so to provide updates and to offer him what support she can when case workers on the ground alert her to new problems he is facing.

Progress is painfully slow.

LGBT+ persecution increasing

But this is by no means an unusual story as Jeanette Cruz, a high yield partner in our London-based U.S. practice, and Carolyn Slauson Ali, a U.S. qualified senior associate also based in London, testify.

Jeanette supervises A&O’s pro bono work in London with IRAP, while Carolyn has continued an association with the non-profit organisation that goes back to her days at Stanford Law School and has seen her work on five cases both before and since joining A&O in 2015.

The world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with people mostly forced into exile because of war and violent conflict and the political and religious persecution they so often entail. But increasingly persecution is focused on LGBT+ people, with families, friends, the public and governments often reacting brutally to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Carolyn cites another case of a gay Iraqi man who fled to Turkey having been imprisoned in his own home by his family. By 2016, the A&O team based in London had helped him complete his application for resettlement, only for his case to get caught up in the increasingly fierce restrictions imposed on immigration and refugee resettlement by the current U.S. administration.

For a while he was forced to do sex work by an individual he initially trusted to help him to secure accommodation in Turkey. He managed to escape that life, and subsequent support provided by UNHCR has protected him from further abuse, but the financial support is soon to run out – and meanwhile the wait goes on.

Jeanette points to another client – a Jordanian gay man with HIV – whose application has been turned down. His case proved to be more challenging because although he fears violence from his family if they ever found out his sexual orientation, he has been unable to convince the authorities that he is entitled to resettlement because he has not faced actual brutality. Fearing for his life, he is trapped and unable to flee because of his illness.

“For these individuals, the assistance we provide can be a lifeline and goes beyond legal help as we refer them to housing and mental health resources they desperately need. Carolyn and other associates, including Maylea Ma, Alexander McKerrow, Khalid Alyafi, Nicholas Gomes, Adam Buehler, Tian Sun, Sherin Basker, Shreya Aren, Heather Elmore, Jiah Ham (Peerpoint) and John Fluharty, deserve much credit and have done the bulk of the work on these cases” she says.

Devastated

Mark Doss, a supervising attorney at IRAP for the last five years, puts the scale of the refugee crisis in context. At any one time IRAP, working with pro bono lawyers in A&O and other partner law firms (as well as on its own account), can be dealing with between 500 and 700 clients seeking resettlement.

But just 1% of all eligible refugees will make it through the system, finally achieving resettlement in the U.S. or other countries. That was the case before President Trump’s executive order clamping down on refugees from certain, mostly Muslim, countries.

Where once the U.S. opened its doors – after a process of very rigorous vetting – to some 70,000 refugees a year or more, the ceiling was lowered to 45,000 last year, with less than half that number eventually admitted. This year the ceiling has been set at just 30,000.

“Under this administration the U.S. refugee programme has been devastated,” says Mark. “All this at a time when we have the greatest refugee crisis since the World War II and with forced displacement at its highest for many decades.”

Now other countries have followed suit. “When the U.S., as a leader and a beacon of hope, abandons its responsibility, it gives a signal to other countries that they can be more restrictive too,” he says.

IRAP believes that “everyone should have a safe place to live and a safe way to get there.”

“That’s our long-term goal, but of course it’s a very difficult, long and slow road to get to that point.” So the organisation tries to help with pressing medical, financial or housing needs in the interim, by referring clients to agencies that can help where it cannot.

It has also sued the U.S. Government successfully on a number of occasions, helping to prevent thousands of people from being deported under the Muslim ban executive order, re-opening the doors to persecuted Iranian minority refugees and successfully restarting processing for some 2,700 children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to be processed for parole in the U.S.

And there’s another vital role IRAP and its pro bono partners play. “We can be listeners. Very often clients feel isolated and alienated, so to be able to reach out and say – this is what’s happening to me, this is my story, I am human and deserved to be heard – is very important as well.”

Trust and confidence

That’s a part of the role that the A&O team understands well.

Jeanette again: “Some of our clients don’t have anyone they trust to confide in about their sexual orientation or gender identity and the challenges they face. From a mental health perspective having someone to talk to in confidence can be very important.”

Carolyn recalls one client – persecuted and fearing further persecution from his own family – saying: “You are my family now.” It’s one of the things she finds both “heart-breaking but also rewarding”.

“They’ve lost that critical support network and the situations they can face are extreme, often involving honour killings. So for them to find a stranger who accepts them for who they are and spends time to support them and prepare the legal documentation needed to provide them with a chance at securing resettlement in a safe country clearly means a lot.”

And a critical part of the role is giving them the confidence to trust agencies like the UNHCR so that they can tell their whole story, in all its traumatic detail, as this could prove vital in making a case for resettlement.

The process is painstaking. Refugees will approach IRAP through email or caseworkers in places such as Jordan and Lebanon. The caseworker will make an initial assessment of the case before referring it on to IRAP lawyers for a thorough intake and eventually they pass it on to one of the pro bono teams.

Carolyn estimates the interviews to prepare the legal case and time spent on preparing clients for subsequent meetings with the UNHCR and national agencies, can involve between 60 and 80 hours of work, followed by regular contacts every two months or so to check in with the client as they await the completion of the process.

It’s a significant pro bono commitment and one that is vital to IRAP.

As Mark puts it: “We are relatively small but working with A&O and over 100 other pro bono legal partners makes a huge difference. It’s a multiplication effect – magnifying and amplifying what we do and means we can support so many more refugees than we ever could on our own.”

Perspective

For Dipti, who has been with A&O for 12 years and got her first taste of pro bono work through the Coram Children’s Legal Centre representing vulnerable children and young people in their applications for British citizenship, the work with IRAP has been inspiring yet also humbling.

“I think you just appreciate what others are going through and how lucky you are that you can take the simplest things for granted. The people we are helping are struggling to meet the most basic material needs, like food, water and access to medical help. So reaching out to organisations that might be able to help them can make such a difference to their lives,” she says.

Jeanette sees this pro bono work, which now involves colleagues across the A&O network, as a clear sign of the firm’s significant commitment to diversity and inclusion. “I think it’s wonderful that A&O offers these opportunities where you can make this kind of contribution.”

Carolyn notes that the work the team has done recently has really resonated with LGBT+ colleagues. “I’ve had colleagues tell me how important it is to them that the firm is supporting this kind of work. It’s a good way to demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion and can help show LGBT+ colleagues that inclusion is an important priority for A&O.”

Representing those most at-risk

IRAP’s work is not limited to assisting LGBT+ individuals – the charity represents the world’s most at-risk refugees, including religious minorities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

David Krischer, a retired partner who now does pro bono work through the firm on a volunteer basis, and associates Gina Lee and Stephanie Hawes were recently successful in a U.S. resettlement application on behalf of an Afghan woman living in Istanbul. She’d suffered extreme gender-based violence since her forced marriage at the age of 12.

Edward Charlton-Jones, an associate based in Istanbul, supported our client and her family on the ground, arranging for a translator to meet them before their resettlement interview. This helped ensure the team’s advice with respect to her application was clear, allowing our client to voice any concerns she had with the application process.

It’s a great example of where we are able to bring together our international network – with David and Gina in New York, Stephanie in London and Edward in Istanbul – to help a vulnerable client.

The most incredible feeling

It’s rare for members of the team to ever meet the people they are helping in person.

Carolyn did, however, meet the family she successfully helped to resettle in her first ever IRAP case and she is still in contact via Facebook with the Syrian man she helped in her second case.

Mark says he’s fortunate to have met more of his clients.

“I can’t tell you how brilliant it is when you’ve built a relationship over a number of years and know the persecution they have faced to then see them in the U.S. in safety. It is one of the most incredible feelings.” ​

 

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