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Working in Athens as an RLS volunteer lawyer

Working as a volunteer lawyer at the RLS clinic in Athens, Tamara plays an essential role in providing legal support for refugees. Read about her experience volunteering with RLS.

“Love the Refugees as yourself.” Mohammad quoted this from The Bible as Jesus’ words. He is not Christian but takes the view that “The first religion is being human.” He is here in Athens with a viable claim for asylum but will not be interviewed until 2020. He left his wife and three children in Afghanistan and then asked that they move to Pakistan to be safe with his father-in-law. He made the request for them to leave Afghanistan after a dream in which he saw them being killed. He has those dreams frequently, he has them when he’s awake.

Mohammad came to see us at Refugee Legal Support (RLS). The RLS clinic is based at the Solidarity Centre opposite Larissa Train Station in Athens. We work alongside Greek lawyers at Solidarity Now who offer advice on various areas of law with a focus on asylum. RLS was initially funded in part by Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA) and is managed through the RLS-Executive Committee a majority of which are barristers, solicitors and judges based in London and working in various different Firms and Chambers. Following Colin Yeo’s shout out on Free Movement for more volunteer lawyers, I spent three weeks with the Team.

The service offered by Refugee Legal Support predominantly does Asylum Interview Preparation and Dublin Take Charge Requests for individuals stranded in Greece. The word ‘stranded’ is my conscious choice for a number of reasons. Firstly, recognised asylum applicants can work, and have to work because there is very limited support, however there are often very few employment opportunities in Greece. Refugees are entitled to housing if they are vulnerable but, except for the assistance of NGOs and squats, there does not seem to be any. They also have healthcare access but, for our client with a child with kidney disease, there are very few doctors in Athens specialising in children’s nephrology and there is not always an interpreter available in that hospital. After the first couple of years waiting to be seen by the Asylum Service, life in a city that has limited patience for ‘immigrants’ has some parallels to the Hunger Games arena.

That said, once here you realise those in Athens are perhaps the lucky ones. The island of Lesvos now has over 10,000 refugees living on it. It is tents and dust. People who have arrived there before March 2016 are restricted to the island until their asylum claim is decided or they accept return to Turkey. It would seem that for those that had no choice but to leave Syria, Turkey was not a place that many of them felt safe to stop running. The islands offer little more: refugees report that life there is unsafe; unsanitary and hopeless. Self-harm is rife.

Those in Athens are also lucky because RLS and SolidarityNow are here. The Greek Coordinator, Efthymia Stathopoulou (Efi) and a Legal Resource Worker from the UK, Ella Dodd, ensure that RLS is exemplary. Clients feel listened to and respected from the start. We volunteer lawyers, in the main barristers so as a solicitor I was an anomaly, come in and out. Efi and Ella make sure that our quirks of style only add to their Service. The raison d’etre behind RLS is providing quality legal support so refugees can ‘navigate through the legal maze,’ and it does that.

Its clients are raw, damaged and sad. Comments about the Death Road between Syria and Turkey are that much more poignant when someone still has its dust on their shoes. Those that are allowed to leave the islands are particularly vulnerable and so we saw more vulnerable clients in Athens than UK practitioners would see in the same three weeks. The clients are also brave, inspiring and have viable claims for asylum. They left because they had to, in genuine fear and they cannot, sadly at this time, go home.

Greece grants asylum at a rate of 50% but it takes such a long time. Interview dates, already two years from the initial screening, are routinely bumped further into the future by the under-resourced Asylum Service. Ella reports one man who waited 2.5 years re-reading his report on his scarring from torture, over and over, trying to guess what the outcome of his claim would be as his interview date kept moving. He lost himself in that process.

Mohammed left a quote ringing in my ears on the day we saw him. After several weeks trying to access support, and despite being able to speak and read English, he had not been able to find what he needed before meeting with RLS. As the last appointment of the day we had time to chat about his experiences, “They pass us from one NGO, saying we will give you the address of another NGO that are involved with this problem and then to another. I am young, I am fit, I can run a lot. I start in one place and go to this office, then this office, then this office but I want to ask, ‘Why are they playing like the refugees are the ball?”

Greece does not have the infrastructure that damaged people need. It may be fair to say that it does not even have the infrastructure that Greek people need. The service offered by RLS is vital because it is not below par. It is not offering something poor, or partial with the best intentions, but is providing professional advice to a high standard. Clients breathe out when they take a seat and the authority forms are translated to them by the excellent team of translators. They are heard and they are helped. It is essential that this project continues because it is so necessary.

RLS-Athens relies wholly upon donations, please donate here. Thank you.

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