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Desperate need for people to train in refugee law

'The average person fleeing for their life has no idea what it means to be a refugee'

Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.

Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.

A leading figure in the field of refugee studies is appealing for more people to specialise in legal aid for asylum seekers, as this form of support is often given late.

“If a war broke tomorrow and someone started bombing the island – but you were able to cross over to Sicily – how would you ask for asylum?

“Would you know what it means to be a refugee? The average person doesn’t know what it means to be a refugee, and the average person fleeing for their life has no idea what it means to be a refugee,” Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University told this newspaper.

Dr Harrell-Bond insisted that there was a desperate need for people to train in refugee law, which was completely different from any other law. Lawyers were not equipped to help refugees unless they were specially trained to do so, she added.

Dr Harrell-Bond, who recently launched a website called www.refugeelegalaidinformation.org, said at the moment she was looking into the case of a gay man from Uganda who managed to reach Britain safely years ago.

The man had no idea what it meant to be a refugee in the first place, and he certainly had no idea he could ask for asylum on the grounds that he was gay, she said.

He spent years moving from one couch to another, and it was only recently that another gay Ugandan refugee managed to find him, get a lawyer and bring him to the centre to record his testimony, Dr Harrell-Bond added.

The average person doesn’t know what it means to be a refugee, and the average person fleeing for their life has no idea

She was speaking to this newspaper during a recent visit to Malta, during which she led an intergenerational discussion organised by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society and was also a keynote speaker at a University of Malta conference on migration and mobility.

Her visit came weeks after the Home Affairs Ministry announced it would be halting the Temporary Humanitarian Protection – New status (THPn) for failed asylum seekers as from next year.

This has sent ripples of fear among THPn holders, who are scared they could face deportation.

Dr Harrell-Bond warned about the dangers of deportation, because depending on their country of origin, people could face trial for treason, risk the death penalty and be detained or tortured, among other consequences.

At the moment, she is dealing with the case of a Nigerian man who has been in the UK for almost 14 years and whose three daughters risk female genital mutilation if they are sent to Nigeria.

It was quite “ridiculous” that people who spent years in a country were thrown out, she said. In Britain, the argument is often made that if migrants have settled down in a community and formed friendships or created families, they should be allowed to stay.

Sometimes MPs, teachers or neighbours wrote letters of testimony or gave evidence in court that the people who were facing deportation had contributed to the community, Dr Harrell-Bond explained.

Prime Minister, Minister of Home Affairs, should rethink deportation, signatories ask

Some 165 academics and 700 other signatories from various walks of life are calling on the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Minister to reconsider the decision to repatriate several migrants who have been living in Malta for some 10 years.

The initiative came from the Department for Inclusion and Access to Learning within the Faculty of Education.

The signatories argued that the decision would ultimately backfire for Maltese society itself, since the migrants in question have settled in Malta and are contributing to the society in several ways.

Head of Department Colin Calleja told this newspaper that a number of organisations and churches (including the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church) had sent a similar letter drafted by the department.

Dr Calleja said that the Home Affairs Minister had acknowledged the letters and explained that the government “assigns special importance to the protection of persons whose human rights are at risk of being infringed upon”.

However, the minister added that not all migrants who entered Malta irregularly, or were otherwise irregularly present, were in need of international protection, Dr Calleja said.

While they had been given the opportunity to work in Malta, this had always been without prejudice to their eventual return to their country of origin, continued the reply.

Dr Calleja said that the minister also made reference to the government’s voluntary return package. His letter ended by saying that “whenever people have not availed themselves of such opportunities, the State has no alternative but to exercise the forced-return option”.

A silent walk of solidarity is, in the meantime, being planned for January 22 in Sliema and St Julian’s.

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