Ensuring Access to Justice: INLAR Story on Pro Bono Legal Help to Refugees

Thursday October 19th, 2017

This year the second EuropeLab organized by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum brought together more than 80 young professionals from the EU, Russia, and other European states. The second edition of EuropeLab felt special because in such a short time participants managed to deliver many ideas for projects that can really make an impact.

The very moment participants gathered in Zagreb, they united their hopes and efforts to find common ground between the European Union and Russia. The intense program, skilled facilitators and the prize at stake influenced the participants: they were enthusiastically converting ideas into projects with full engagement for success, making a difference, making a change and making the world better.

A Simple Idea to a Complex Project

The International Network on Legal Assistance to Refugees (INLAR) project started at the brainstorming session on stakeholders at the beginning of the workshop Refugees (Un)Welcome – Caught in a Trafficking Jam. Having previous experience in project management, Oleksandra Zmiyenko, Ola Pulchny, Bianca Constantin, Natalia Zviagina and Karina Levina immediately came to a common vision that a SMART1 project on improving the situation of refugees in Europe should include two main components: refugees and tangible assistance. After a round of brainstorming and fact-checking activities, it was concluded that the assistance should take the form of legal support. Therefore, having refugees, migrants and asylum seekers as direct beneficiaries, and lawyers, legal clinics, CSOs and para-legal practitioners as assistance providers, the INLAR team thought, why not link them? Furthermore, if adequately supported, beneficiaries may later become peer-to-peer legal service providers, while if adequately promoted, legal service providers may become advocates and donors. The idea behind the project is really simple.

In reality INLAR will be a more complex action. First, it will create an interactive self-sustainable and easy to update map of legal service providers working with and for refugees. The map will include the location and contact details of legal professionals and organizations providing any type of legal assistance to refugees. That means INLAR will not focus solely on migration and refugee law, but will rather expand the assistance to civil, administrative, and criminal cases. At the pilot stage, it will cover Bucharest (Romania), Warsaw (Poland) and Voronezh (Russia), and be further expanded later. Apart from building a professional associations, INLAR will promote assistance to refugees by establishing a symbolic “refugee backpack” award to the international lawyers of the year from each of the target countries.

Second, INLAR will advocate for pro bono legal assistance to refugees. Pro bono legal work has undergone a profound transformation in the past 25 years. For much of legal history, pro bono was either ad hoc or addressed to local NGOs’ needs. However, in the context of refugees and migrants arriving to the target countries, it is vital to address the beneficiaries’ legal needs, which can be done only by advocating for sustainable pro bono legal efforts.

Third, INLAR will serve as an experience-gaining platform for young professional, such as lawyers and translators. Knowing how difficult it is for graduates to enter the labour market without having any experience, INLAR will provide students and recent graduates with an opportunity for mentoring by senior pro bono colleagues and practicing in solving real cases, thus gaining visibility and smoothly entering the labor market.  Thanks to the kind support of the “Lost in Translation” Project, young translators will receive essential coaching on brining cross-cultural differences, thus bringing more people to understanding each other.

Finally, yet most importantly, INLAR will empower. Vulnerability comes from disempowerment. A person who passively receives assistance is vulnerable. To address that, the INLAR team envisages empowering beneficiaries by encouraging them to pursue law studies, becoming INLAR peer-to-peer consultants and translators, and eventually to take over the management of the project, with the founders staying as the Board. Since the INLAR team partly consists of former migrants, it knows from firsthand how important it is to feel empowered and responsible.

Neglecting Distances to Strengthen Teamwork

INLAR has a truly international team. It has united five young lawyers from Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. The team members are spread across the whole of Eurasia – from Poland to Kyrgyzstan, with four hours’ time difference – “Although we are an international team and  ignoring distance is an important factor when it comes to keeping the team spirit alive,” said Bianca Constantin, the INLAR project manager. “Given the dedication, leadership and teamwork, the project has so far been very important to us.”

INLAR has already stated to implement project activities by reaching out to law firms, and  NGOs and CSOs working with refugees and providing legal advice. “Since INLAR will serve as an intermediary platform between beneficiaries who require legal help and professionals who would agree to take up cases from different  fields of law, outreach is the first step we had to take,” said Oleksandra Zmiyenko, INLAR outreach officer. “We’ve started forming partnerships and managing the elaboration of the website itself,” added Bianca Constantin. A clear communication strategy and additional funding are also crucial to make such an ambitious project happen. “We work to secure additional funding to be able to cover all the activities under the INLAR project, but actually it’s the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum which gave us such a unbelievably fantastic start,” said Karina Levina, INLAR project development officer.

“We are grateful to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for being given such a unique chance to participate in EuropeLab and to be awarded as one of the winning projects this year. We really want to improve the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and we have a clear strategy of how to do so. INLAR is a truly innovative and sustainable project which has the potential to grow further.” said the INLAR team.

INLAR team thanks the organisers of EuropeLab, representatives of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, UNITED for Intercultural Actions, particularly Ralph du Long and Balint Josa, Lost in Translation Project, particularly Nour Ibrahim and Christina Riek, as well as Anna Frank House, particularly Luba Shynder.