This summer I have been working as a Legal Affairs Intern at the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association (ACAA), where I have had the privilege to meet and work with people who have inspired me to become more courageous, following the example they set each day. Many of these individuals are Afghanistani asylum seekers or refugees who visit our offices in Hounslow where our team of interns work tirelessly to provide them with the support, knowledge and skills necessary to thrive prosperously in the United Kingdom.
Due to ongoing conflict, unemployment, lack of security and poverty, many Afghans (and those like them), have lost their homes and livelihood in their motherland, where these vulnerable people have had no other alternative but to seek refuge in a foreign country. The displacement of such individuals, paired with millions of casualties within the region, has been an assault on human dignity. The acts of inhumanity which refugees across the world have faced and fled from is something which must be addressed compassionately and effectively by domestic governments and the international community.
Many refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and around the world face systematic setbacks as a result of their situation. Having come face to face with such challenges through my work at the ACAA legal clinic, I have seen first-hand the knock on effects these issues have, not only on the individual refugee or asylum seeker, but also on the migrant community as a whole. It has left many feeling mentally and physically exhausted, bringing about a sense of insecurity and obsoleteness within the community.
In the UK, asylum seekers are not permitted to work. Refugees on the other hand can, but more often than not, secure low-paid employment, as a result of poor communication skills and lack of experience. Low income leads to many such individuals relying on legal aid to gain free, impartial advice and representation when legal disputes arise. Thus, legal aid often acts as the only route to justice for these people. Nevertheless, recent cuts to legal aid has resulted in many lawyers and legal interns such as myself to feel the pressure of an already over-stretched area of law. More devastating however, is the effect these changes have had on the vulnerable migrants who depend upon and seek these services for the true deliverance of justice.
The changes have left many asylum seekers and refugees unable to qualify for legal aid. This is seen most startlingly in great portions of immigration law, where the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 stipulates these areas as being out with its scope. Many vulnerable individuals can therefore no longer use legal aid to assist them with family reunions, nor can they utilise it in making a claim on the basis of the right to family, and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. With no money to pay for lawyers, and the inability to qualify for legal aid, many individuals walk into our offices with the hope that our team of legal interns will somehow be able to provide them with the assistance they so desperately need and deserve, or, alternatively, they face the daunting task of having to represent themselves, leaving them particularly exposed to exploitation.
The roll back on legal aid has had a specially devastating impact on asylum seekers, where as a result of unemployment, no recourse to public funds and with practically no money to pay for appeals, these people face the continuous risk of becoming destitute, being detained or removed from the country, despite displaying genuine cases. These people are often stripped from their family, forced to go back to a home which they no longer consider their own.
Changes to legal aid alone cannot be viewed as the sole cause behind the widening gap between vulnerable migrants and the access to justice. The issue also lies within the general treatment of these people, where many, due to an absence of proper and adequate support, are left clueless to the processes involved in exercising their legal rights. Moreover, they often feel isolated and intimidated, lacking the confidence to pursue justice as a result of their shaky understanding of the system under which they reside. This to me is quite simply due to a void in government-backed, tailored support available to these individuals. Although there are many services in the UK (and around the world) which exist to assist refugees and asylum seekers, they are often challenging to find, and due to potential cultural barriers, can come into conflict with the needs of the individual.
The lack of information and awareness amongst these communities with regards to their legal rights was recently demonstrated when we had a gentleman come in to our offices seeking representation for a hearing he had the following day. He was completely unaware that his employment case could possibly fall within the scope of legal aid. Although in a short space of time we were able to help him in writing a successful written representation, his situation could have been dealt with much more efficiently had he been aware of the more professional, legal services that were available to him.
Similarly, providing sound legal advice to migrants can often be an incredibly taxing task, as there is a continuous risk of there being some form of miscommunication. Although at ACAA, we have a diverse range of volunteers who are on hand to translate complex legal matters simply, not all vulnerable migrants are lucky enough to have this sort of assistance.
The strain on legal aid and the lack of informative and educational services tailored specifically to certain migrant groups is what allows these people to be continuously denied their right to justice. After all, if we are to make justice more accessible and widely available to such individuals, we must first educate them on how the system works and raise awareness on what legal rights they hold. Greater funding and genuine initiatives focussed on assisting such people would not only help to bridge this gap, but will ultimately allow these people the chance to rebuild their lives and thrive in society with dignity.
Unfortunately, this can be made more challenging due to public perceptions and a general atmosphere of mistrust towards migrants, where refugees and asylum seekers are viewed as a burden on the system. This leads to people becoming reluctant in supporting charities and government backed steps which help these individuals. But if we are to better ourselves as a society, we must promote justice through securing a system which is fair and built upon the principles of tolerance and community cohesiveness. We must strive towards sincerely supporting those at home who have been denied justice in their own land. To me, justice continues through to the transition period, where refugees and asylum seekers – such as those we encounter at our offices – are granted the same opportunities given to those more fortunate than them. I strongly and genuinely believe that these people must not, and should not, be left on their own.
Whether it be through lobbying for the reformation of the legal aid system, or by supporting charities and government-led initiatives, we can all play a part and contribute to the betterment of these people in some way. Through promoting tolerance and inclusivity as a society, we will also be promoting justice in its truest form. When it comes to the crisis faced by refugees and asylum seekers, it often feels as though we are moving one step forward, yet going two steps back. There is still a long way to go before we can secure a truly equal society where equal consideration is given to all, but by working holistically towards strengthening our justice system, by ensuring its availability and accessibility to all, I am hopeful that one day we can give asylum seekers and refugees – who are arguably the most vulnerable people in our society – the life and opportunities they truly deserve.