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Support for the Human(rights)itarian View: A Call for Legal Information for Refugees

Volunteer Laurie Davidson has spent the past six months working on the behalf of refugees in Europe. She has learned that refugees need information as much as they need food. In this post, Laurie guest blogs a follow-up of our World Humanitarian Day post with a discussion on the current situation regarding legal rights.

alt Volunteer, Laurie Davidson

As Natasha suggests, part of the refugee crisis—or in my mind, the real crisis—is in the need to ensure that legal human rights are guaranteed. The violation of legal rights is occurring in equally staggering proportion to the deprivations in housing and the basics of living that have prompted people and organizations all over the world to provide aid.

I’ve spent the past six months as a volunteer working with refugees or on activities to assist refugees. I’ve been at transit facilities on Chios; Piraeus port tents pitched on pavement; a mainland camp; and the center of Belgrade.

I’ve distributed clothing, food, shoes, and diapers; provided art supplies and books; helped run classes and activities. I’ve raised money and spent my own on everything from baby formula to phones to spices for cooking. I’ve hugged a hundred children and sat with adults who offered me tea and coffee and food they’d prepared. I’ve listened to their stories and cheered for my favorite refugee soccer team. (They lost.)

In fact, I’d guess that the bulk of money, time, and activity that volunteers and donors and small NGOs have contributed is spent on direct humanitarian aid. Most of the media attention is focused here as well.

alt Ritsona, Greece

A lack of information about the asylum procedure

On Chios, I didn’t have a clue about the asylum procedure and couldn’t have told anyone how to apply for relocation to an EU country. Like one of the Mobile Info Team volunteers who was working early on with a volunteer kitchen in Idomeni, on Chios I had the feeling when I was delivering soup or shoes that "there were so many questions, but very few answers." When refugees asked me, I would send them to Kathleen, a volunteer who had been on the island two weeks longer than I had. I knew she didn’t know either, but she would know who to send them to.

I didn’t see any concerted effort to ensure that refugees understood their rights or the processes whereby they could exercise those rights. Maybe some sheets of paper were handed out, but I’m guessing most refugees, like most of the volunteers on Chios, were focused on getting warm clothes and enough food, as none of that was provided by the NGOs there or the EU or the Greek government.

And then everything changed. The refugees were evacuated from Chios on March 19 to camps on the mainland.

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When I arrived at Ritsona camp on the mainland, it was clear that no one was in any hurry to tell refugees about the asylum seeking process and their legal rights. There’s plenty of documentation of the human rights violations of no running water, improper hygiene and nutrition, and isolation far from town centers, so I won’t go into that here.

The legal rights I’m talking about here are those that give a person in the European Union access to procedures and processes outlined in law. Now, that is my main focus—to understand the laws, procedures, and processes and support efforts to create change.

I see the work that is needed occurring at three levels of action:

1. Information dissemination. The efforts we are seeing to keep refugees in their place are undermined whenever there is information available about their options. Information empowers refugees. Open and free distribution of information is the minimum we should expect in Europe.

2. Legal advocacy for individual cases. It is essential for refugees to have recourse when the law is not being followed. Legal representation can range from accompanying refugees on asylum interviews to appealing asylum denials to advocating on behalf of a group of refugees. It may be pro bono or for a fee.

3. Advocacy for policy change. True access to the processes and procedures to which refugees have the legal right will only be achieved through changes in policy, whether that is in the form of additional funding and personnel or the creation of more effective structures for providing access or in sanctioning countries that are obviously obstructing the processes and procedures.

A shift in funding towards dissemination of information

I’ve discovered that there is some excellent work being done in the first area, but it is vastly underfunded. At the end of this piece I’ve provided information about several organizations, including links to their donation pages, doing great work to get information to refugees. In a follow up piece I will tackle legal advocacy on individual and policy levels.

It’s vital that organizations involved in the information dissemination continue or expand their efforts. When the refugees who pre-registered in that massive GAS-EASO effort this summer receive their registration appointments in Athens, there will be a massive need to help them prepare for those interviews. Because so many camps are located so far from where the interviews will take place—Thessaloniki in the north and Athens in the south—there will be a need to help refugees with transportation costs and perhaps even overnight accommodations, as all appointments are at 7am. The entire family must appear for the interview.

Here are a few of the organizations I have found to be effective. I’d like to see a meaningful proportion of the work and money go toward these activities as we all move forward. Please read about them and when you think about supporting refugees, think Information, Legal Representation, Policy Advocacy: The Tools of the Human(rights)itarian

Recommended Organizations

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RefuComm is an all-volunteer organization that provides information for refugees and volunteers in Greece and Germany on asylum procedures, family reunification, relocation, medical and education services, deportation, and assisted voluntary returns. All of RefuComm’s information is verified and checked with the relevant authorities and by lawyers. Right now, RefuComm is preparing information to help refugees prepare for the registration interview at Greece Asylum Service in Athens. (Their first video, explaining the asylum/relocation interview in Farsi, will be followed by a similar video in Arabic.)

Mobile Info Team for refugees in Greece meets with refugees at ten different camps around Thessaloniki. Due to restricted access for independent volunteers to several camps, the team holds the sessions outside of each camp. The team also has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and a blog where they share relocation maps and statistics and information sheets in in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu - the languages most of the refugees here speak.

Info Park is a refugee info aid center in Belgrade, Serbia, in a park next to the bus station arrivals. As of this writing, Info Park has been asked to remove its information and aid hut as part of a new attempt by the Serbian state to clear the parks and downtown Belgrade from the refugees and migrants. In addition to humanitarian aid, Serbian locals and volunteers from the Middle East with refugee history assist with asylum and registration legal matters with aid from Praxis. Info Park notifies refugees of their legal rights and assists if they want to join the official asylum camp in Krnjača, either for overnight stay or longer.

News That Moves provides updates for migrants in Farsi, Arabic, Greek and English, including In the Loop, which summarizes refugee concerns about any issue based on themes recorded by staff and analyzed to identify both general and unique concerns. Recent themes have included asylum appointments, school enrollment, prioritization of housing, and provision of humanitarian aid. Information is verified from all relevant sources, including humanitarian organisations, government authorities, human rights organisations, and others. News.That.Moves also issues Rumours, which debunks rumours circulating with refugees and volunteers.

W2EU’s web page is organized by topic, such as Asylum, Family, Medical, and Work, and country, W2EU provides independent information for refugees and migrants coming to Europe. Country listings include contact information for organizations and attorneys working on asylum issues on behalf of refugees.

Asylum Links EU gives refugees in Greece access to reliable, up-to-date asylum information so they can better defend their rights and helps people access the medical and housing services available to them. Information is distributed to refugees in camps and living in urban centres. onducts research to provide information about asylum choices in Europe.

Laurie Davidson is currently in Serbia and will go back to Ritsona camp next week. She worked for 18 years as project manager and director in the health and human services division at Education Development Center, Inc. in Massachusetts, USA before heading to Chios last March.

Natasha Freidus

Natasha Freidus is a consultant and trainer leveraging new media tools for social change. She currently lives in France where she volunteers with a local refugee solidarity effort.

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