‘Refugee’, ‘migrant’, ‘crisis’. They are all buzzwords of today’s world, synonymous with a disgruntled right wing and a sympathetic left and an unavoidable part of daily media consumption. One cannot open a paper, look at a news website or view a television news bulletin without coming across at least one of these words flashed across a headline accompanied by harrowing images of families crammed into dinghies or languishing in refugee camps in squalid conditions.
While everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter, there seems to be very little in the way of reliable legal sources offering advice and guidance on the ever-escalating situation.
The European refugee crisis started in early 2015 when widespread political and social disruption in the Middle East and North Africa caused a big spike in the numbers of unauthorised foreign migrants arriving in the European Union. This large influx of people over a short period of time put pressure on EU member states and many have been ill-equipped to deal with the complex legalities surrounding asylum seekers, irregular migrants and refugees. This, in turn, has led to excessive delays when processing individual cases.
Each person’s case and set of circumstances is completely unique and the EU judicial system and the legal frameworks of its various jurisdictions are not prepared or experienced enough to handle such matters.
Refugee law is complex and intricate
Refugee law is complex and intricate. It is completely different from any other and would require a lawyer to undertake additional specialist training to have the authority to advise accurately. Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, stated that law courses just do not provide adequate training on matters pertaining to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and there is a desperate need for students and lawyers alike to consider pursuing a specialisation in this field.
While humanitarian law and international human rights law are areas that receive a lot of interest from scholars, students and practising advocates, there remains many differences of opinion with regard to their relationship to each other and their applicability to the cases of refugees and asylum seekers. This is not only an important point for debate but it is part of a wider discussion on the issues arising from fragmentation of international law.
Some scholars believe that refugee law should form a part of a larger normative system, along with international human rights law and humanitarian law, which should seek to protect the rights of humans always and at all costs. Others think that refugee law should apply strictly to situations where an individual seeks protection because of armed conflict and military occupation.
The fact that this very dichotomy of opinions exists highlights the fact that more education and training is required within this area and that special attention should be given to refugee law and on educating not just legal professionals but members of the public too.
Let us for one moment imagine that a war broke out in Europe. Within days or weeks, as happened in both WWI and WWII, millions of EU citizens would find themselves displaced and being forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in a different country or continent.
When faced with not only leaving your own country but also travelling a long distance to a foreign, alien place, would you know what your rights are? How would you ask for asylum or navigate a potentially complex legal system in a different language to achieve refugee status?
It is a growing concern that most of the EU population would not know their rights if faced with a situation like this. Furthermore, if they sought the assistance of legal professionals, it is unlikely that they would be qualified to assist, unless the professional is among the very few specially-trained ones.
Harrell-Bond recently travelled to Malta to lead a discussion organised by the President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society and to be a keynote speaker at the University of Malta’s conference on migration and mobility.
In her speeches, she warned of the dangers of not knowing how to process an individual’s application and how deportation can put people at risk of the death penalty, trial for treason, imprisonment and torture. She admitted she deemed it ridiculous that people were being unfairly returned to their country of origin without due care and attention being given to their plight and personal situation. Even people who had been resident in a country for many years and had made valuable contributions to society were being sent back because of a system ill-equipped to handle such cases.
While it is imperative to ensure that refugee status, humanitarian protection and asylum is only awarded to those who genuinely deserve it, it is pertinent to note that there is an evident shortage of legal practitioners with the theoretic and practical experience necessary to provide advice and assistance to those in need.
With the end of conflict in Africa and the Middle East nowhere in sight, one cannot expect any significant drop in the number of people seeking assistance in Europe so it is up to governments, lawyers and lawmakers to equip themselves with the knowledge to provide fair, intelligent and accurate advice.
Alice Taylor is communications coordinator at Fenech Farrugia Fiott Legal and founder of Malta Young Professionals.
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