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Increasing legal protection and engagement among refugees in the Middle East and Asia

AHRC/ESRC GCRF Forced Displacement project title:
The law of asylum in the Middle East and Asia: Developing legal engagement at the frontiers of the international refugee regime
PI: Martin Jones

Refugees are vulnerable people for many reasons - but particularly their difficult legal position.

This project aims to improve legal aid provision for refugees in the Middle East and Asia by showing lawyers how to engage with the law in new, innovative ways; and by helping them understand more about what the legal process is like for refugees.

This is particularly important because there are millions of refugees living in Middle Eastern and Asian states that haven’t signed the Refugee Convention and that don’t recognise refugees in their domestic law.

This situation means that refugees can find themselves in a kind of legal limbo, vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and other serious human rights violations, because they are seen as outside of the law. This leads to situations such as discriminatory treatment from landlords and employers, sexual harassment and assault with impunity, arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention and corporal punishments such as caning.

But refugees can still find protection under the law - if the right help and advice is available.

This GCRF co-funded AHRC and ESRC project closely examines those occasions where the law has been used successfully in an attempt to establish whether these can lead to a new approach to refugee protection. It is also partnering with local lawyers to pursue innovative legal advocacy for the rights of refugees.

The two-year project, which started at the end of 2016, is working with four leading providers of legal aid to refugees in Egypt, India, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It is taking on 120 refugee legal cases, 30 from each country.

Ultimately, it aims to support new refugee legal aid programming in the Global South, particularly in those states that haven’t enshrined international or local refugee law.

Professor Martin Jones, senior lecturer in international human rights law, University of York, and principal investigator, says the project is challenging the assumption that the law can do little to help refugees in states that haven’t signed up to the Refugee Convention.

“The existing approach to protection in difficult environments such as in the Middle East and Asia is inadequate and the states might not have refugee specific legislation,” he says.

“But there’s other legislation that can be used. The project seeks to examine an alternate approach – based on the law of asylum – that would improve protection through greater legal engagement. Through legal advocacy we are adopting a broad idea of what the law is and when it can be used.”

Jones says this means being creative about engaging with the law and how it can be applied. He cites the example of refugee children: “Even if a state doesn’t recognise refugees, they recognise the rights of children – such as the right to go to school,” he says. “So, there are legal opportunities there.”

Those working on behalf of refugees need to look at other identities in connection with the law – and not just their clients’ refugee status.

Lawyers need to draw on a wide and sometimes less well-known range of laws, such as international treaties, local constitutional law, local legislative provisions, local jurisprudence and common-law principles.

First and foremost, the project aims to benefit refugees and improve the long-term access to legal aid that meets their needs. The project is not solely focused on the outcomes of any legal interventions though – a core element of it is the experiences of refugees during the legal process.

“We are interviewing refugees and lawyers about their experiences of receiving and giving legal aid,” says Jones. “We want to find out how refugees feel during legal encounters – empowered or disempowered, vulnerable. Too often it’s just the ultimate outcome that is reported. But we want to understand what it means for them and the impact of legal interventions.”

This information is currently being collected and will result in 120 detailed case. Forty of those case studies will be turned into digital stories, which will be used as teaching tools and as a way to engage lawyers in discussions about how to approach cases. “We want to create a larger conversation about what we are finding,” says Jones.

But the project aims to have an impact beyond the individual cases – it wants to influence practice and change the ways that organisations approach legal aid programming.

This involves training current and potential providers of legal aid and raising awareness of how the law can be interpreted and applied. It also involves collaborating with other civil society organisations working with refugees in the Middle East and Asia and with governmental and intergovernmental organisations to help shape future policy.

“There are untapped opportunities for providing refugees in the Middle East and Asia with greater rights than they have right now by tapping into new places of advocacy,” says Jones.

The opportunities exist. What Jones wants to see is them being explored and used to benefit more refugees.

Intended outcomes and impact

  • A new approach to refugee protection in states in the Middle East and Asia that have not signed the Refugee Convention and do not recognise refugee rights
  • To train lawyers in how to interpret and apply a whole range of laws in order to provide more effective legal aid
  • To benefit refugees
  • To better understand the experiences of refugees during the legal aid process.