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The Athens Legal Support Project: volunteers’ experiences

In early 2017, a group of UK volunteer immigration lawyers, with the support of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, set up the Athens Legal Support Project, a four-month pilot (April–July 2017) providing specialist support to refugees and Greek lawyers in Athens.

In early 2017, a group of UK volunteer immigration lawyers, with the support of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, set up the Athens Legal Support Project, a four-month pilot (April–July 2017) providing specialist support to refugees and Greek lawyers in Athens.

Based at the Khora Community Centre in the Greek capital, we have been providing pro bono legal advice on refugees' substantive asylum claims and assisting in applications for reunification with family members elsewhere in Europe. Our hope is to establish a long-term support project to help alleviate the immense pressures currently placed on the Greek legal and NGO communities. We are hugely grateful to all those who have taken part and donated. These are some of our volunteers' accounts:

Julia Lowis, barrister, 3 Hare Court I volunteered in Athens during the first two weeks of the project, during which time I advised individuals and families, helped set up effective casework structures at Khora, delivered the first training to refugees working with us as interpreters, and began to develop links with relevant people already working in Athens, in particular the Greek Council for Refugees and the Refugee Info Bus. A number of individuals whom I advised told me this was the first time anyone had listened seriously to their problems or viewed them as human beings rather than numbers in the system. By giving a voice to refugees, while assisting in advancing their legal claims, the Athens Legal Support Project is helping to meet a desperate human need to which Europe continues to turn a blind eye.

Caroline Wilson-Brown, solicitor, Bradford and Airedale Citizens Advice and Law Centre I felt privileged to be part of the Athens Legal Support Project for a week at the start of May. During my short time in the legal clinic, I prepared many individuals for their asylum interviews. There were also numerous enquiries from people wishing to move on from Greece, particularly those who wanted to join relatives in Germany. Usually, these involved a 'take charge' request being sent by Greece to the German authorities. Worryingly, Germany is now heavily restricting the access to this, and asylum-seekers in Greece may have to wait many years to be reunited with their family members, if they can do so at all. In such cases, we really made a difference by gathering appropriate evidence of the family relationships and dependency issues for medical reasons. There was, however, a real need for those who read and speak Greek, as this is an advantage when considering clients' documents.

It is my hope that this project and others like it can not only help the refugees involved, but also bring more attention to the appalling conditions for refugees on the Greek islands such as Lesvos, Chios and other 'hotspots' in the Aegean. These are people suffering on the fringe of Europe, who have been through more than enough trauma already.

Marios Kontos, trainee solicitor, Duncan Lewis I was at Khora during the first week of the pilot in April and then again in the middle of May. From the outset, we have seen many who need advice on the Greek asylum process, family reunification and relocation to other EU countries. A significant number of visitors are vulnerable with mental health difficulties and complex care needs that cannot be met on the islands to which they are normally restricted, leaving them with no choice but to seek medical assistance on the mainland. We are working closely with Greek lawyers to explore possibilities for future litigation that would challenge these controversial residence restrictions. The pilot's positive impact shows that collective and co-ordinated action is an efficient way of tackling systemic deficiencies.

Diana Baxter, partner, Wesley Gryk Solicitors LLP I volunteered in early May. After a steep learning curve in Greek asylum procedures, I spent my time advising clients while also giving a training session to the clinic's longer-term volunteers. I met individuals and families from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. One family, with relatives in Germany with whom they wanted to reunite, came to the clinic late on Friday afternoon. Their asylum interview was scheduled for the following Monday but, despite having waited for this date for many months, they had never spoken to a lawyer and were living in extremely difficult circumstances in a camp outside Athens.

They had three young children and the mother, who suffered severe mental health issues, was due to give birth imminently. With the invaluable assistance of a local interpreter, I was able to spend several hours at the clinic with the father on the Saturday, helping to give outline advice on his asylum claim and request for a Dublin III transfer, preparing a witness statement and advising on the documents he needed to demonstrate the family relationships and issues surrounding his wife's health. The clinic is providing follow-up assistance in preparing documents to assist the family's Dublin III claim.

Elena Georgiou, trainee solicitor, Duncan Lewis I was in Athens in the first week in May. I saw individuals who required legal advice in relation to relocation, family reunification, asylum claims, the interview process, appealing decisions following a refusal and information regarding the EU/Turkey deal. This project helps provide information to individuals about what is relevant to disclose to the authorities in relation to an asylum claim even though it may seem unnecessary or be difficult to discuss. It also advises on collating crucial documentary evidence, which can assist in strengthening an asylum claim.

The locals were very friendly and helpful. It was clear that the individuals working at the community centre were immensely compassionate. Everyone worked together well and brought a different skill set in order to make a positive contribution. The most striking aspect was visiting a refugee camp and meeting children who are currently residing at the camp, and being refused entry by the International Organization for Migration to enter the camp and provide information and assistance with interview preparation unless we obtained permission from the Ministry of Interior and the police.


The original article is available on the LAG website.

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