By Ella Barclay
An asylum seeker’s future can rest upon the translation of a single word. One such case was a man whose refugee status was rejected in the UK because he told the Home Office he had travelled to the Turkish border in a “taxi” but later used the word “private car”. The asylum office interpreted this as an inconsistency undermining his claim. He was forced to leave his home at an hour’s notice and return to the country he once fled.
When Tiara Sahar Ataii, founder of the charity SolidariTee, heard his story it highlighted for her the essential role of legal aid in ensuring that asylum seekers receive refugee status. A lawyer could help, for example, to ensure a consistent narrative for someone who has been so traumatised by their experience that such details are impossible to remember. The EU refugee crisis is a legal crisis, Tiara realised, and the solution is therefore legal aid. So in 2017 she founded SolidariTee, a student-led charity, to fundraise for legal aid and raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis. It now spans over 40 universities in 6 different countries and has raised more than £40,000 for legal aid providers.
“What was the address of the people who helped you get your papers?” “What date did you finish secondary school?” “When did you first get your passport?” (Crawley, 1999, p.68). These are all real questions that have been asked in asylum interviews, with the individuals expected to recount every possible detail of their story, no matter how traumatic the event. The ability to answer such questions should not cost someone their refugee status, and yet, in so many cases, it does.
Legal aid is critical for guiding people through this strict process of claiming asylum, but such aid is desperately scarce. On the Greek islands, for example, state lawyers are so overworked they rarely meet with their clients and therefore routinely miss out essential details, which could be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful claim. Psychiatrists are similarly overworked, with the result that they are often unable to produce medical reports in time for asylum interviews. Consequently, mental health issues are rarely diagnosed or confirmed, again leading to asylum applications failing unnecessarily.
Most asylum cases would be successful if claimants were provided with sufficient legal aid. A lawyer would hear if they had a stutter, for example, and ensure that this does not undermine their credibility. Or they would take the time to write a narrative that clearly shows the individual’s well-founded fear of persecution. But with the current lack of provision in countries such as Greece, this kind of support is simply not possible.
Asylum seekers throughout Europe are currently engaged in a lottery: refugee status, which may be the difference between life and death, depends on luck. And yet, legal aid remains critically underfunded.
Perhaps one reason for this lack of funding is that it is much harder to market legal aid in comparison with other forms of refugee support. Such aid is often intangible whereas raising money for food and shelter can be illustrated quite easily on a poster. Legal aid may take years to reap benefits and its impact is incredibly difficult to explain in a 280-character social media post.
While the more marketable forms of aid are vital, they remain short-term solutions that are merely treating the symptoms not the cause. Across Europe, 50% of failed first-instance asylum cases are accepted upon appeal, even though their stories and reasons have not changed (Henderson, Moffatt and Pickup, 2019). The only difference between a first application and an appeal is access to legal representation.
At SolidariTee our aim is to help fulfill this urgent need for legal aid. We have a vision that feels realistic. Imagine if every asylum seeker was properly informed of the application process and understood its key terminology before their first interview: those who have a legitimate claim to asylum would be accepted. As a consequence, the refugee camps would begin to free up, meaning asylum seekers sleeping rough would suddenly have accommodation. The rate of appeals would fall, meaning waiting times would fall too.
Legal aid is not fashionable but it’s the most realistic and sustainable solution we have for supporting the asylum-seeking process.
SolidariTee is currently running a campaign to protect refugees from Covid-19. Read its open letter to European leaders and find out how you can support the campaign here.
To donate money or buy a signature T-shirt to help SolidariTee, please visit the website. And join the SolidariTee Facebook page to stay updated on upcoming fundraisers and awareness events.
Ella Barclay is a student on the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol and Bristol’s current Head Representative of SolidariTee.