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Making a difference: routes to safety

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A&O provided Evangeline Atkinson with the skills and confidence to support causes that matter to her. She now uses the law to champion the rights of refugees and displaced people.

Working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic gave Evangeline Atkinson the time to reflect on what was important to her. Although she thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of her work at A&O, she describes an ‘itch’ that led her to relocate to Greece, where she hoped to make a difference.

Her self-belief and principled, diligent approach propelled her into a completely new work environment providing asylum support to displaced people, who receive no state legal aid before their first interview.

Evangeline knew, when she graduated from Oxford in 2016 with a law degree, that she wanted to work alongside talented and ambitious people, benefit from high-quality training and have the opportunity to work overseas in a firm with a global outlook and reach. A&O ticked all the boxes.

Before joining, she volunteered for several months with the independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) PRAKSIS at the Eleonas refugee camp in Athens, helping to teach English and run activities for children.

“My work with PRAKSIS sparked my interest and concern around displacement and how we welcome people who have had to leave their homes behind, and flee to safety,” she says. “I knew when I was there that I wanted to do more to support people in these environments.”

The two years before qualifying provided a solid grounding for Evangeline, and after a six-month secondment to the Hong Kong office, she was delighted to settle into a role within the Derivatives and Structured Finance (DSF) team in London. It was a busy time as the department supported banks undertaking large-scale repapering of their derivatives contracts.

Supported and challenged

“Every day was different,” she says. “There was a welcoming and purposeful feeling in the team where I felt both supported and challenged. I felt at ease to be my true self.

“While I was at A&O, I learned the fundamentals of being a good lawyer. I developed a keen eye for detail, an ability to break down complex matters and to think critically but pragmatically. I was taught to read carefully, listen carefully and to be unafraid to ask questions if I still didn’t understand something. These skills I developed in the early days of A&O have stayed with me ever since.”

During her four years at the firm, Evangeline worked on a number of pro bono projects. One was the Z2K appeal, a partnership with the specialist welfare benefit NGO that supports people at risk of losing their benefits, helping them through their tribunal process and prioritising cases that are complex and carry a serious risk of homelessness.

Another was the ELIL Collaborative which supports people caught up in the European refugee crisis in Greece and recognises the serious impact that the lack of free legal support has on these asylum seekers. This charity works with a consortium of law firms in the UK, including A&O, to undertake two-week secondments to help prepare those in need for their asylum interviews.

“The provision of quality legal information and advice is crucial, and it’s so scarce on the ground,” says Evangeline. “Many people are expected to navigate a complex legal system in a language they don’t understand. So much rides on their asylum interview, and the implications of no lawyer helping an individual to prepare can be catastrophic.”

Even though the pandemic meant that Evangeline had to do her two-week secondment remotely, the work she was involved in struck a chord with her.

“I care a lot about fairness. I saw that people who have already been through so much are finding themselves in the most distressing, hostile situations in Europe. And the odds are really stacked against them. The enormity of the problem is another level, above and beyond what we see on the news in the UK.”

While I was at A&O, I learned the fundamentals of being a good lawyer.

First instance appeals on Chios

Evangeline left A&O in 2020, having decided to relocate to Athens, where she initially volunteered as a legal assistant within the Athens office of ELIL, providing legal support to the Lesvos office remotely and working as a part-time caseworker at Khora Asylum Support Team. After spending time in mainland Greece, she worked as a volunteer legal assistant for A.S.I.S.T. on the island of Chios, providing asylum interview preparation and working alongside Greek lawyers to help with first instance appeals, family reunions and other legal queries.

She says: “I realised that this really is front-line work. It requires emotional intelligence and a particular kind of resilience to work effectively and with integrity in a context where there is such a significant human dimension.

“I had no experience of this, for example in teaching or nursing, so I’ve had to develop that resilience on the job and learn how to put boundaries in place.”

Returning to London in 2021, Evangeline joined Safe Passage International. The charity directly represents minors and adolescents, helping unaccompanied children and adolescents to find safe routes to sanctuary. For refugees it helps bring to the UK, it also supports their transition to a new life, reuniting them with family.

The charity uses the insights of its legal work to campaign for improvements in a system that currently provides no adequate safe routes for people on the move.

“I applied for the role at Safe Passage while in Chios,” says Evangeline.“I was attracted to it because I saw that Safe Passage was working to achieve systemic change in refugee and asylum policy. It had this combined focus on advocacy and strategic litigation together with the really crucial casework.”

Many of the young people that Safe Passage helps have found themselves alone in the chaos that surrounds border crossings; they have lost parents, carers and/or siblings as they flee from the turmoil of war or terror.

“Since Brexit, there is no Dublin process to allow children in the EU to reunite with their family in the UK,” she says. “Even though it’s obvious that family reunion is in the child’s best interests, the immigration rules are very restrictive, decision-making is poor, and we often fight our cases all the way to appeal stage. And children are trapped alone, in danger and with no adequate safe route to their family in the UK.”

I saw that Safe Passage was working to achieve systemic change in refugee and asylum policy. It had this combined focus on advocacy and strategic litigation together with the really crucial casework.

Progressive, pragmatic solutions

In the year ahead, Safe Passage will be launching an enquiry into people crossing the Channel to offer progressive, pragmatic solutions to an issue often in the news. It will also be setting up a legal consortium led by lawyers to address challenges faced by unaccompanied or separated children “on the move” in Europe.

Evangeline now supervises a Ukraine project that brings together nine law firms, including A&O, to staff a roving clinic in Warsaw providing advice to people escaping the war and moving to the UK. The project was recently praised as ‘standout’ at the Financial Times Live Innovative Lawyers Awards 2023.

She says: “It has been a pleasure to work with the A&O Pro Bono team, including Aditi Kapoor and Sarah Michael. A&O has sent out a number of fantastic volunteers to the Warsaw clinic, and it was lovely to have Atholl Macpherson, an ex-colleague, staff the clinic earlier this year.”

Safe Passage also set up an Afghan pro bono initiative, in collaboration with 14 law firms, including A&O, in response to the growing need for legal support for Afghans following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Working with a number of law firms on pro bono projects is invaluable as it allows the charity to reach many more people. The work is frustrating in the current environment and emotionally challenging but is also “incredibly rewarding”. Evangeline is staggered by the resilience of the people she works with and the courage and optimism so many of her clients demonstrate.

The work in her chosen field has attracted some hostility as not everyone is in full support of it. While Evangeline hasn’t experienced any direct hostility, she’s aware of the discussions around the legitimacy of immigration practitioners’ work from senior politicians and certain sectors of the media.

Transitions to new areas of law

“It speaks to just how polarised the political discourse has become,” she says. “We’re lawyers, representing our clients’ best interests, as we’re professionally required to do. Mischaracterisation of legal practitioners in this field is an attack not only on our professional integrity, but also on our justice system, insofar as it undermines immigration lawyers’ ability to provide independent and equal access to justice.”

Evangeline’s experience shows the transition to a completely different area of law is possible. The legal, project management and soft skills she developed at A&O gave her the confidence, optimism and versatility to pursue work that means so much to her.

She believes we need to challenge and change the narratives which demonise people seeking safety in the UK – from the Afghan orphan desperate to join his older brother to the Somali teenager hoping to live in safety with her aunt after fleeing a forced marriage.

 

Reconnect with Evangeline Atkinson.

Evangeline Atkinson

Supervising Lawyer at Safe Passage International
A&O: 2016-2020

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