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One year on: A&O’s global pro bono legal support for Ukrainian refugees

A year ago on 23 February 2022, Russia and Ukraine stood on the brink of war. And then, just a few hours later on 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict which began in 2014. Since that fateful day, the invasion has caused tens of thousands of deaths and caused the largest refugee crisis across Europe since World War II. In the twelve months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are few corners of the world unaffected by the conflict.

During the first days of the Russian invasion, more than two million refugees fled to Poland. Nobody was prepared for a refugee crisis of this scale. Previous crises, most recently in Afghanistan, underscored a need for early co-ordination between law firms trying to mobilise resources for a pro bono response, to avoid overwhelming the capacity-constrained NGOs who hold the required expertise to deliver a response, with multiple offers of assistance.

A coordinated effort

A&O initially joined the efforts coordinated by the Polish Bar Association and other firms, to assist with the legal challenges refugees might face on arrival and in their journeys to resettle. Overall, nearly 1,500 lawyers volunteered in Poland, providing information on issues including work permits and accommodation. Michal Gajdus, counsel in Warsaw led the A&O effort, “The whole response was incredible - a group of NGOs and academics produced an online training programme in 48 hours, to upskill volunteer lawyers to deal with queries.”

Whilst the majority of Ukrainians have opted to stay in Poland, there was also demand for access to information from those seeking to resettle elsewhere. Oliver Bacon, counsel at A&O in London who, together with Aditi Kapoor - a lawyer in A&O’s central pro bono team, based in London, set up the A&O response from the UK, says “We saw from very early on that there was a gap for people wanting to travel onwards from Poland. We worked with the Warsaw team to mobilise a wider international team of 170 A&O lawyers to help with queries from refugees. It was a way of leveraging the fantastic A&O network to assist volunteer lawyers across Poland, as well as NGOs with advice on how national governments were responding and seeking to accommodate refugees.”

Aditi reflected on the design process for a longer term pro bono response. “From the outset, we wanted to ensure that in addition to our initial response, we could build a sustainable pro bono project with partner NGOs and stakeholders which would continue to meet the need in the longer term – it is clear that legal support for Ukrainian refugees is still much needed a year on.”

Working with partners

In the months that followed the initial invasion, we worked together with our existing NGO partners, European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL) and Safe Passage International (SPI) and a group of other law firms, to scope out a collaborative project for multiple firms*, supervised by expert immigration lawyers. It involves deploying both Polish and England and Wales qualified lawyers on two-week secondments to ELIL and SPI respectively, to support the provision of legal advice across a wide range of issues to refugees in Polish reception centres and community organisations – the UNHCR Blue Dot Centre, Modlińska Reception Centre, Ptak Expo Reception Centre, Konstancin-Jeziorna Centre and Ukrainian House.

Last month, the SPI project celebrated a total client caseload of 245 and the support of 21 clients to travel safely to the UK, to be united with their sponsors. The ELIL project has assisted more than 2,250 people with Polish law advice to date.

These projects and the firm’s broader continuing work on forced displacement, including assisting Afghan refugees across our U.S., EMEA and Australian offices and our longstanding project with ELIL in Greece, demonstrates that the legal needs arising are complex and long term and that the pro bono response needs to be commensurate.

“Our work helping refugees in Warsaw has been a real team effort across A&O and our NGO partners” said Michal in Warsaw. “We have been overwhelmed by the incredible support and commitment from people who want to help. Their continued energy gives us hope for better, peaceful days to come.”

*Our partner firms across these collaborative projects are: Bird & Bird, Dentons, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright and White and Case, (European Lawyers in Lesvos); and Akin Gump, Ashurst, Clyde & Co, Norton Rose Fulbright, Orrick Herrington and Sutcliffe, Reed Smith, Simmons & Simmons, White and Case (Safe Passage International).

This article is part of a series – in the next we will hear from A&O secondees who have taken part in the Safe Passage and ELIL projects.