Blog post by Haramain A. Jebrail, a refugee Legal Officer, and Rebecca Leabeater, a Senior Legal Officer, in Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services, based in Cairo, Egypt. Both work in the Refugee Status Determination Team in the Refugee Legal Aid Program at StARS, assisting clients in their refugee claim process. Haramain is a qualified lawyer with a degree in law from Egypt, and Rebecca is a qualified lawyer from Australia.
Global recognition of the qualifications and capabilities of refugees, long overdue, is now increasing. Recently, there has been growing scrutiny of the role of international organisations from the global north leading responses to refugee issues in the global south; and a move towards ensuring refugee participation in leading refugee responses. Such participation should include refugee involvement in decision-making and strategy development, as well as in legal processes such as refugee recognition.
Refugees should participate in their own legal representation. We are aware of legal programs involving refugee participation, like community paralegal programs in Kenya, Thailand, Indonesia and Tanzania. However, anecdotally and from our experience, there remain very low rates of refugee participation in the legal representation of refugees in mandate refugee status determination (RSD) processes. The main benefit of refugee participation in legal representation is that it would be more sustainable for legal aid programs in the global south to predominantly employ and build the capacity of refugee lawyers. This would in turn lead to expanded programs and increased access to legal representation in mandate RSD processes.
Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt, is an organisation providing assistance, including legal aid, to refugees. A foundational principle of our organisation is the recognition that those from refugee communities are most qualified to serve their communities, with 85 percent of our staff coming from displaced populations. In August 2017, the Refugee Legal Aid Program (RLAP) at StARS began developing a program to hire refugee lawyers, with the intention of building the capacity of qualified members of the refugee community in Cairo to represent refugees in their RSD process with UNHCR. Egypt is UNHCR’s largest mandate RSD operation worldwide. We understand that this program is the first of its kind globally.
I am a refugee lawyer in RLAP. This article is based on my own experience, as well as interviews with my colleagues and our supervisors within RLAP.
Developing the program
Since its inception, RLAP has largely relied on staff from the global north. This is in contrast to the hiring principles of StARS as an organisation. RLAP’s Director and past and current RSD Coordinators have found that this over-reliance on international staff presented recruitment and training challenges, which has made it difficult to maintain a stable team to respond to the growing numbers of refugees who need assistance in their RSD process in Egypt. In this context, developing a program to prioritise the capacity-building of refugee lawyers within RLAP was crucial to work towards expanding RLAP’s RSD legal services. Refugee lawyers possess the skills, qualifications, and resilience to provide legal services in a setting like Cairo, but also face multiple barriers to employment, like disrupted education due to displacement and a lack of opportunities for professional development.
From late 2017, the RLAP Director and former RSD Coordinator developed a detailed framework that set out the procedure for hiring and training refugee lawyers, as well as anticipating the challenges we could face. To join RLAP’s program, refugee lawyers would be required to be qualified legal representatives or have a law degree. We would initially provide advice to and represent clients in all RSD matters, but would not accompany clients to their UNHCR RSD interviews, which would require approval from UNHCR Egypt.
RLAP’s first refugee lawyer was hired internally from StARS in February 2018. Induction and training was tailored to appropriately support the refugee lawyer. This included training in computer literacy and English legal terminology; on dealing with local refugee communities and local authorities; on the Nairobi Code and StARS procedures; and then gradual training on and shadowing of the different types of RSD legal services. Eventually the refugee lawyer began to provide these services, initially shadowed by a supervisor and then independently.
Through the onboarding of the first refugee lawyer, RLAP discovered some weaknesses in its training system and that it was not tailored to train someone educated in a non-Western setting. This made clear the importance of the additional training that refugee lawyers would benefit from, particularly in computer literacy skills. It was also apparent that an incremental increase in responsibilities for refugee lawyers was necessary to ensure that we could take in what we were learning at a sustainable pace. This is important as the demands that refugee lawyers face at work are not just related to the technical tasks of the job, but also past displacement and external pressures. These lessons were crucial for the hiring and training of RLAP’s second refugee lawyer in February 2019 – me.
Our experience as refugee lawyers
I am so proud to be a refugee lawyer from a refugee community, providing legal services to refugees from different nationalities. Training which we received helped me to understand the procedures of UNHCR, of other services provided by StARS and of RLAP. Mentoring from, and frequent meetings with my supervisor assisted me to better understand the different types of RSD legal services that RLAP provides and helped me to improve in my confidence and legal skills.
We took on different aspects of RSD legal services one by one. The most enjoyable aspect of my role has been conducting information sessions with adults and unaccompanied children to prepare them for their UNHCR RSD interviews, and accompanying clients to UNHCR RSD interviews. We have also had the opportunity to participate in training new RLAP staff members on country of origin information and legal ethnics training. The administrative aspect of our work was quite difficult, especially at the beginning, but we have found the most challenging part of our work to be appeal cases. This includes preparing appeal statements with clients and writing legal submissions, which involves formulating the approach to argue in a case. Sometimes we have to put conflicting testimony from clients to them, which is tough, but I have learnt how to create the best environment for the client to give them the opportunity to provide more information to us.
It is important for refugee lawyers to set boundaries and separate our work and personal life, to alleviate pressure we may face from our community. Practically speaking, this can be difficult, and supervisors must be conscious of this and help to manage it. Our supervisors regularly ask us about this and we also report this to them if it happens. We have had some issues with our communities, mainly people contacting us personally outside of work to ask for our advice. We have been able to resolve individual issues as they arose; it has been straightforward for us to explain to our community members that we are not allowed to answer their questions in that context and they have understood. I also had a frank discussion about the limits of my role with the Community-Based Organisation (CBO) that represents my community.
I have experienced discrimination from clients from refugee communities because clients have come to expect that legal officers will be Westerners. Work needs to be done to shift refugee community perceptions of and prejudice against refugee lawyers. For example, training or information sessions could be provided to communities and the CBOs that represent them to raise awareness that refugee lawyers work for RLAP and will provide services to clients.
Supporting refugee lawyers
In developing a program for refugee lawyers, RLAP has focused on purposefully building and maintaining strong foundations. One integral component has been a well-organised supervision structure to address refugee lawyer’s technical, professional and ethical development. This has been essential to ensure an adequate amount of support and a safe and open space for refugee lawyers to discuss both positive and challenging aspects of the role.
RLAP senior staff have immensely enjoyed supervising refugee lawyers. They have felt fortunate to observe our growth in the role and development of our expertise in interviewing and representing clients. A former RSD Coordinator explained that refugee lawyers bring a clear empathy and ability to identify with clients that those who have not lived the experience cannot possess, balanced with a sharp and perceptive legal analysis that is also borne out of experience. The refreshing and unique perspective of refugee lawyers provides RLAP with further insight and understanding into how refugees themselves can lead legal services for refugees.
All supervisors noted that even with a strong support structure in place, time constraints remain the most challenging factor in supervising refugee lawyers. We have a close and collaborative working relationship with our supervisors, and they believe additional time spent together would further accelerate the learning curve of refugee lawyers in our work. This would be particularly beneficial with reviewing advanced legal work, such as appeals and statements of clients, given that it requires a very specific format and analysis. This is even more complicated with a language barrier. The working language of UNHCR Egypt is English, and this presents difficulties even for refugee lawyers who are very experienced in the English language.
Time constraints faced by supervisors demonstrate that for the program to durably expand in the future, RLAP will need to build the capacity of senior staff to adequately supervise and support refugee lawyers. Realistically, this would require funding from stakeholders for additional senior positions for supervision, oversight and training of refugee lawyers, to balance prioritising this program while also continuing to address client demand for RLAP services.
Cooperating with UNHCR
RLAP is a firm advocate of the right of refugees to be involved in the UNHCR RSD space, and at the same time is sensitive to UNHCR’s and other stakeholder’s concerns about this, which relate, in particular, to perceived conflict of interest. A goal of the program had always been to eventually seek the cooperation of UNHCR Egypt so as to eliminate limitations on the legal services provided by and expand the scope of the refugee lawyer’s work in the RSD process. In order to do that, RLAP needed to be able to demonstrate how it was supporting refugee lawyers with challenges and mitigating any concerns UNHCR may have about conflicts of interest.
In light of this, RLAP spent over one and a half years developing a framework and then providing extensive training and professional development for refugee lawyers, as well as implementing a higher-level supervision and support system. This involves more frequent supervision meetings compared to other team members, which include a discussion about the unique challenges faced by refugee lawyers such as community-pressures and how clients have reacted to our presence. We also do not represent clients from our own communities, as our supervisors are conscious that difficult conditions faced by refugees and a scarcity of legal services available could mean that our communities place heightened pressure on us to provide legal services.
By mid-2019, refugee lawyers were working on or towards all aspects of RSD legal services except for accompanying clients to UNHCR RSD interviews. After introducing the program to UNHCR Egypt as well as UNHCR Headquarters and receiving their encouragement, we were able to commence accompanying clients in August 2019. One compromise that was reached during these discussions was that refugee lawyers would not accompany clients from our own nationalities to UNCHR RSD interviews. This arose due to UNHCR’s concerns about perceived conflict of interest. Personally, I hope that this can be changed in the long-term, by strengthening and expanding the refugee lawyer program.
UNHCR Egypt’s cooperation with RLAP regarding its refugee lawyer program has been encouraging and a practice that can have a positive impact on access to legal assistance for refugees in mandate RSD settings. UNHCR’s welcoming of refugee lawyers is an important step towards progress in refugee inclusion in the RSD process, which we hope to see replicated in other UNHCR mandate RSD operations.
Prioritising the employment of refugee lawyers recognises that refugee lawyers are better positioned to provide legal assistance to refugees, and ensures a move towards active participation by refugees in decisions being made about their communities. Meaningful focus on employing and developing refugee lawyers will also further contribute to improving the sustainability, expansion and long-term future of refugee legal aid programs, which has been the experience with community-based refugee paralegal programs. This is particularly relevant given that in 2018, 227,800 people applied for refugee status in mandate RSD countries. RLAP has experienced first-hand the ongoing growing demand for legal assistance in the RSD process, and the need to develop sustainable ways of addressing this.
RLAP is in a phase of reflection so as to focus on prioritising the expansion of the refugee lawyer program in the immediate future. In the last six months, we have hired an additional two refugee lawyers after one refugee lawyer was promoted to a supervisory role within StARS. We now have three refugee lawyers in the team and we hope to see the program continue to grow in the coming years. Key takeaways have been that:
- Training of refugee lawyers must be well-paced, tailored to support the technical and professional needs of the individual, and an ongoing process; and
- A robust supervision structure is essential to ensure a collaborative working relationship, recognising that this requires a significant time investment of supervisors which may impact on other aspects of a legal aid organisation’s workload.
Refugee legal aid organisations should support and advise each other in prioritising development programs for refugee lawyers, to work towards refugee lawyers being the norm, not the exception.
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