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Tackling a crisis that hasn’t gone away

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27 November 2019

As part of a unique pro bono collaboration, volunteers from A&O and five other law firms are helping an NGO on the Greek island of Lesvos provide legal assistance to thousands of stranded refugees. 
a group of people on a small boat

Phil Worthington remembers the intense media interest on Lesvos when he first arrived there in 2016, at what was then assumed to be the height of the refugee crisis.

With people arriving in huge numbers, most having made the perilous journey by dinghy to the Greek island, the place was swarming with news crews and journalists.

Since then, the crisis has fallen out of the headlines – the turning point a deal struck in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey to contain the crisis.

Phil, a commercial lawyer by background, first went to the island as a volunteer helping to distribute food and sleeping bags. “People from the European authorities thought: that’s it, the problem is solved,” he says.

But although the EU/Turkey deal significantly reduced the numbers of refugees arriving on the island, it also completely transformed the legal situation.

Since then, refugees have been obliged to seek asylum in Greece. Rather than transiting through Lesvos swiftly, as in the past, new arrivals are under a geographical restriction meaning they cannot leave the island and are stuck in the Moria refugee camp waiting for their applications to be determined. Some of those considered most vulnerable are eventually moved to the mainland, but the process can take months longer.

“Instead of spending two days in the camp, they can now spend years on Lesvos or other nearby islands,” says Phil, who now runs European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), an NGO set up by the CCBE (Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe) and the German Bar Association.

These groups founded ELIL in recognition of a profound legal need, he says. “Lots of lawyers came out to volunteer in the humanitarian effort, but then the question became: what can we do as lawyers?”

A two-year wait

The Moria camp, an ex-military base just outside the town of Mytilene, has capacity for 3,000 people but since the pivotal EU/Turkey deal the numbers have swelled to between 14,000 and 15,000 refugees – with many waiting more than two years to receive a decision or, in some cases, just to have their first asylum interviews.

ELIL has three permanent Greek asylum lawyers and, on average, three additional volunteer asylum lawyers. There are just 15 lawyers in all on Lesvos providing assistance to asylum seekers – the equivalent of one lawyer for every 1,000 refugees.

It was against this backdrop that ELIL started exploring ways to get more volunteer lawyers to increase capacity, so reached out to commercial law firms with an interest in doing hands-on pro bono work.

An ambitious pro bono collaboration

It has lead to one of the most ambitious pro bono collaborations ever mounted in the legal industry.

Six firms – Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; White & Case; Dentons; Ashurst; A&O; and now also Charles Russell Speechlys – have come together as part of a pilot programme running to July 2020, within which each firm will send volunteer lawyers for two weeks at a time to work with ELIL.

The six firms are also working with a second NGO, Refugee Legal Support, to provide intensive training for the lawyers on asylum law, as well as how to conduct interviews with their often traumatised clients, and, importantly, to help them build their own resilience for the challenges they will encounter.

For A&O, this project builds on a growing body of pro bono and community investment work in recent years to address the global refugee crisis. The initial response was fantastic, with 40 lawyers asking to become involved.

Of the 12 selected to join the project from A&O offices in Europe and the Middle East, three have already completed their two weeks in Lesvos: associate Aoife O’Reilly (Litigation, London); and senior associates Marton Eorsi (Corporate, London); and Angelique Pfeiffelmann (Litigation, Frankfurt).

“When I saw the opportunity in Lesvos, I jumped at it,” Marton says. “Pro bono work is not always within your area of expertise, so the challenge is to find somewhere you can really add value. You always want to give something back.”

Demanding work

Their work there covers three main areas. The majority is about preparing refugees for the very rigorous asylum interviews with the Greek and EU authorities. It is a sensitive and demanding task, helping the refugees to understand that they must tell their story fully and accurately to demonstrate the credibility of their asylum claims – even if it means reliving painful traumas.

As Aoife puts it: “In a way, all these people have are their stories because they’ve left everything else behind. But explaining that they have to tell their stories in such granular detail is difficult.”

Listening and notating the stories, so that follow-on lawyers have an accurate record of individual cases, is skilful work says Marton. “These are highly vulnerable people and eliciting their worst traumas is something you need a lot of experience to get right. When you see a grown man break down in tears, you know you need to use common sense – offer a break or a drink of water.”

Lawyers are also working on family reunification cases – in which refugees are allowed to move to another country if a relative is a refugee or pursuing asylum there – and assisting those considered most vulnerable who can be moved more quickly to the mainland. Part of the work is answering simple questions about medical support or clarifying confusions over documentation.

For Angelique, the most important task was responding to people’s need for immediate advice. “In our normal jobs, we have time to study the law in detail to give clients the best advice. In Lesvos, you are giving advice that people can work with quickly. It’s a totally different way of helping people.”

Impressions of Moria camp

Impressions of the camp are still vivid for all three.

For Aoife, it was the incredible overcrowding that sticks in her mind, with people living in tents, prefabricated units and containers in incredibly close proximity. The conditions in Moria were reminiscent of what she experienced volunteering in Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake destroyed over 60,000 homes. Walking around the Lesvos camp, she had to remind herself that she was in Europe.

“Every day you’d see a new tent crammed into the apparently non-existent space between two prefabricated units – it was impossible to walk through the rows of accommodation without feeling that you were encroaching on the entrance to someone’s home.”

Marton recalls one day when heavy rain swept piles of rubbish into the mud tracks running through Moria – a reminder that weather conditions on the island don’t always conform to the images in holiday brochures. In recent winters it has snowed heavily.

Many refugees – whether from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon or the Democratic Republic of Congo – run into old disputes and rivalries in the camp and many feel insecure, Marton says. He recalls a husband and wife who took turns to stay awake at night to guard their children.

Given the conditions in the camp and the long wait for even the most basic needs to be met, Angelique found it impressive how calm and patient the people were. “Although it would sometimes take a long time before we were able to speak to them, they were always very grateful for any kind of information or advice, even if we couldn’t help them immediately,” she says.

Fair, robust and efficient

Phil puts the project into context. “Our role is not to try and make sure everybody gets asylum, but to ensure the system is robust and efficient and that people are able to present their case in a way that means they get a fair hearing.”

He remains amazed at the response of lawyers from the commercial firms, with many more applying than can be accepted during the pilot phase.

The volunteers also bring something else that is proving equally important to the ELIL team, he says. “People come with new energy – it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

But, while the cameras and notebooks of the journalist are focused on other events now, Phil makes one important last point about a crisis that hasn’t gone away.

“This isn’t a Greek issue. It’s a European issue.

“There are between 60,000 and 70,000 refugees in Greece – the capacity of one football stadium. That is not a lot of people. If every EU member state took 2,000, the problem would be solved.”

This article is taken from the new edition of our pro bono and community investment magazine, Increasing Access.

Download the full magazine below