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“The crisis in Afghanistan is by no means over.”

In the second of our interviews for Refugee Week, we hear an update on A&O’s work to resettle Afghan refugees in Europe.

Over a year since the Allied Armed Forces began their withdrawal from Afghanistan, A&O’s pro bono work to support Afghan asylum applications in the U.S. has extended to countries across Europe, with programmes now in France, the UK, Netherlands and Germany.

Paris Partner Hippolyte Marquetty and London associate Zara Sproul, working with wider teams, have been closely involved with the resettlement schemes in France and the UK respectively.

Tell us about the Afghan pro bono collaborations that A&O is supporting in France and the UK.

Hippolyte: In France, we are part of a pro bono collaboration with 11 other law firms* and the NGO, Safe Passage International France, taking on cases for Afghans who are eligible for family reunification or humanitarian visas here.

Working with multiple firms is a very effective framework because it means we can jointly fund a legal coordinator for Safe Passage International who specialises in asylum law. Some of the associates who wanted to be involved were concerned they wouldn’t be legally qualified – and perhaps also psychologically prepared – to do this work. But having a dedicated specialist has given them the confidence to take on cases, which means we can have a bigger impact. We’ve had 13 associates come forward to help already – quite a sizeable proportion of our team in Paris!

Zara: The model in the UK is exactly the same – there are 14 firms* working with Safe Passage International and Refugee Legal Support to find routes into the UK for Afghans seeking reunion with family members. We also have a specialist immigration lawyer involved, who knows the detail of the legal framework surrounding immigration in the UK – one of the big issues here is that the framework is very narrow and doesn’t adequately support the scale of the problem. There is still an overwhelming number of Afghans who desperately need legal advice and representation as they try to find routes to safety. 

What motivated you both to become involved with this work?

Zara: During the Taliban takeover of Kabul last August, I was heavily involved with evacuating a number of Afghan families to the U.S. Seeing the scale of disruption and trauma that these families experienced (and many others who were less fortunate and did not make it out) had a huge impact on me personally. 

I felt compelled to continue helping Afghan refugees and could see that this collaboration with other firms was a strong framework within which to do so in the UK. It’s a sustainable, long-term model that is mobilising greater numbers of volunteers meaning we can support many more Afghan families together. In many cases, people have had to leave Afghanistan with nothing but a backpack and parents have been forced to be parted from their children – these are situations you just cannot fathom until you hear people’s stories. 

Hippolyte: I also felt strongly that we had to do something in this crisis – without pro bono support, Afghans in France would have no legal help as there’s no financial aid for them here. But it’s also a way for us as lawyers to come out of what we do on a daily basis and make an impact on others’ lives – you get to know these people and their families over several months, and it’s a powerful feeling to be able to provide them with the reassurance of having good legal representation.  

As several of our associates have said, doing this work goes to the heart of being a lawyer and brings a strong humanitarian dimension to what we do. The dedication I’ve seen across our team of associates is incredible.  

Zara: I agree – the commitment I’ve seen from A&O colleagues on this project, and during last summer, has been amazing and is very humbling. So many people have come forward, wanting to make a difference, and are working so hard for our clients. We all want to do as much as we can for them, and I think this really shows A&O at its best.

What is the scale of the refugee crisis that still remains for Afghans? 

Zara: Safe Passage International estimates that up to 150,000 people applied for evacuation as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last summer, but less than 5% of those received any legal assistance. Thousands of people are still trapped and in desperate need of legal advice. It’s a terrifying situation to be in and the needs are extensive and complex – but, as lawyers, we are in position to help, particularly as the legal aid sector in the UK is hugely under-resourced and doesn’t even cover family reunification applications. 

Hippolyte: The volume of people still needing safe passage out of Afghanistan is enormous, so while there is still a need and we can help, we will. This is not a short-term project – the cases are complex and can take months to see through, and despite the media headlines turning to other issues the crisis for people still stuck in Afghanistan has by no means gone away. 

Ongoing support for Afghan asylum applications in the U.S.

Work is also continuing with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) to process applications through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme, which since 2006 has provided a route for Afghans who had worked for or on behalf of the U.S. to resettle permanently in the country. A&O has worked with IRAP for several years but, as John Hibbard, senior counsel in New York, says: “Given the risk of persecution faced by so many people after the Taliban takeover, the volume of applications for SIVs and other types of U.S. visas has risen significantly. 

“Having an approved SIV application was one of the few ways for Afghans to get on an evacuation flight as the Taliban entered Kabul last August,” John says, “so a call went out for A&O volunteers internationally to help finalise the documentation on more cases.”

A&O now has an international team of over 50 lawyers trained to process SIV applications for the U.S., and has so far taken on more than 50 SIV cases for Afghans, as well as wider resettlement options that create a legal pathway out of Afghanistan and asylum applications for Afghans who have been admitted to the U.S. on a temporary basis. “But each case is different, complex, and takes time given people’s individual circumstances,” John says. “This crisis is nowhere near over – the need for pro bono volunteers is as great as ever and we are continuing to work on many more cases.”

* Law firms within the UK Afghan Pro Bono Initiative: A&O; Akin Gump; Ashurst; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Clyde & Co; Debevoise & Plimpton; Eversheds Sutherland (International); Hogan Lovells; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Mayer Brown; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (UK); Reed Smith; Ropes & Gray; Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK).

* Law firms collaborating on the France Afghan pro bono programme: A&O; Clyde & Co; Dechert; DLA Piper; Hogan Lovells; Mayer Brown; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Reed Smith; Shearman & Sterling; Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Squire Patton Boggs; White & Case.

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