Using the Law to Protect Refugee and Migrant Rights: YLAL Midlands event on World Refugee Day 2019

On 20 June 2019, YLAL Midlands hosted an event on the law relating to refugees and migrants and the increasing difficulties that individuals face in seeking safety or a better life in the UK. We also began discussions on building networks between lawyers, charities and community groups to empower individuals seeking to exercise their rights.

The event was first introduced by YLAL Midlands member Maria Poleo with a briefing on recently published figures by the UNHCR Global Trends Report 2018 (see slide attached below). As a result of violence, persecution or other human rights violations perpetrated against them, 70.8 million people are recorded as having been forcibly displaced from their homes and needing to seek refuge.

Within this context, we then began hearing from our panel of incredible speakers: Sian Drinkwater from Migrants Organise, Ahmed Aydeed, Director of Public Law at Duncan Lewis, as well as Charlotte Rodriguez from The Children’s Society and young people who have been supported by The Children’s Society as they go through the asylum appeals or age assessment process. The panel was chaired by YLAL Midlands member Farheen Ahmed.

One critical part of the event was hearing the stories of two unaccompanied children seeking asylum who received assistance from their support networks in pursuing their cases. In the complexities and technicalities of the law, the real life implications of the legal system can be ignored. These stories pulled the focus directly back onto the individuals facing the brunt of the hostile environment and the supportive role that legal aid lawyers can play. Charlotte reiterated how a multi-agency approach must be central: working with legal practitioners, appropriate interpreters and support workers can enable the entire process to be less opaque to the young people facing it.

One theme of the event related to the ever-encroaching nature of the hostile environment policy. Ahmed spoke of the legal duties imposed on public bodies to act as a border force; he raised the example of police reporting undocumented migrants to the Home Office. Sian spoke of the importance in mobilising to challenge the policy in its many forms. As one example, she spoke about how Migrants Organise (alongside others such as Medact) have recently launched the #PatientsNotPatients toolkit to assist local communities in improving access to healthcare for migrants.

The prominence of legal aid ‘deserts’ were also noted by speakers and attendees, particularly outside of larger cities such as London and Birmingham. In an increasingly complex legal system, this has undoubtedly led to unjust outcomes for individuals. Whilst pro bono work, charities and organisations have attempted to put a ‘plaster’ on this issue, there was a recognition from the panel that this was insufficient. Indeed, it is through sustained funding for legal aid that individuals could again challenge unfair, unlawful and unjust decisions by the Home Office.

What was repeated through the discussion is the importance of a collaborative approach between lawyers, charities and community organisations. By building and nurturing relationship between these groups, it is hoped that we can empower individuals to navigate the system and, together, challenge the hostile environment policy in its entirety.

Further details from the event can be seen in our live-tweets, and the presentations from the event are attached below:

We are grateful to Farheen Ahmed for preparing this summary of the event.