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Asylum Access: A Case Study

When Asylum Access opened its first offices, in Quito, Ecuador, and Bangkok, Thailand, the model was conceived as involving two pillars: legal aid and policy advocacy. Through legal aid, the team wanted to give refugees more tools to assert their rights under law—their right to recognition of their refugee status, typically a prerequisite for asserting rights as a refugee; and their substantive human rights both before and after this recognition, as refugee claimants and as recognized refugees. Where domestic laws did not protect the full range of substantive rights for refugees, including refugee claimants, Asylum Access wanted to change this. These were seen as two pillars—the foundations of a model that would make local integration a viable choice for refugees. In many ways, the pillars remain a useful way to understand Asylum Access’s approach. The goal still is to seek to change the laws and systems that govern refugees’ lives and to give refugees the tools to make those laws meaningful in their daily lives.

At the same time, early work in Ecuador, Thailand, and a few years later in Tanzania (where operations opened in 2009) showed that confining the work only to legal aid and policy advocacy, narrowly understood, was not enough to make refugees’ rights a lived reality—and thus permit local integration. The approach evolved over time as ideas were tested and adjusted and new strategies were designed to bring refugees’ lived reality closer to the human rights promises of international law, adding additional tools to Asylum Access’s repertoire.

Today, five core tools are seen as essential to making refugees’ human rights a reality:

  • 1. Legal aid. For Asylum Access, legal aid means the provision of individualized legal information; advice; and, where needed, representation to refugees who seek to navigate legal requirements or address rights violations. This includes helping refugees engage with formal legal mechanisms (e.g., courts) but also less-formal modes of asserting rights—for example, negotiating with public service providers (e.g., schools, hospitals) and private actors (e.g., employers, banks). For refugee children, legal assistance may help them obtain identity documents, assert their rights to enroll in local schools and access state benefits (e.g., healthcare), secure their release from detention, and demand police response to crimes against them.
  • 2. Community legal empowerment. As this is conceived, it helps refugee communities understand their rights and build strategies to collectively assert and defend those rights. Because community legal empowerment activities are designed in response to input from the refugee community, the form and substance varies from country to country. A few examples are described later in the country case studies in Section 6. In all contexts, however, Asylum Access brings members of the refugee community together and provides information about laws and policies impacting refugees; simultaneously, refugee participants share knowledge, experience, and ideas with one another.
  • 3. Policy advocacy. This is Asylum Access’s primary tool to dismantle barriers that keep refugees from enjoying their rights. These barriers can be laws that explicitly or inherently prevent refugees from accessing their rights. For example, there may be limitations on refugee employment or requirements that all children present a birth certificate to enroll in school, which may be impossible for a refugee child. A lack of laws that grant refugees their rights also presents legal barriers, such as a lack of a law prohibiting discrimination in provision of public services, which may allow a state healthcare provider to turn away a refugee child simply because she has characteristics unlike those of citizens.

While policy advocacy can take many forms, Asylum Access most often uses persuasion as the primary advocacy strategy: Team members engage government decision makers and influential allies so that they understand the negative consequences of barriers to refugee rights and urge them to take concrete steps to remove such barriers (e.g., by passing or amending laws). The recent change in Thailand’s bail policies for detained refugee children, for example, came after Asylum Access and others urged the government to consider alternatives to detaining refugee children, pointing to widespread global condemnation of child detention and the financial expense of extended detention.

  • 4. Strategic litigation. This, for Asylum Access, means litigation that serves a purpose beyond resolution of the immediate conflict of the parties involved. Using litigation strategically, for example, might secure a judgment striking down an unjust or illegal law that negatively impacts refugees. It might be used to illuminate an injustice, where Asylum Access thinks this will improve the chances of getting government decision makers to change the law as a result. In addition, this might be employed to enforce a new law against one violator, as a way of sending a message to others that they may face consequences if they do not change their behavior.
  • 5. Movement-building. Asylum Access uses the term “movementbuilding” to describe its efforts to engage others to understand the scope of refugee rights violations in today’s world and to become effective advocates to stop these violations. Movement-building can include everything from conversations aimed at raising influential world leaders’ awareness of refugees’ human rights, to sharing materials and lessons learned with emerging advocates interested in refugees, to encouraging journalists and academics to investigate the refugee rights violations that are seen on a daily basis.

Together, these five tools allow Asylum Access to move refugeehosting countries towards full respect for refugees’ human rights, creating an environment in which refugees may viably integrate if they so choose.

Aside from the five tools, three other elements are central to Asylum Access’s approach. First, the organization’s entities are local. Asylum Access, properly understood, is a family of organizations, with each organization locally registered in the country where it operates. Each local Asylum Access organization is led by a local director—a national of the country in which the team is seeking to make refugees’ rights a reality. Although volunteers from around the globe are engaged, as a general rule most of the paid staff are locals, either nationals or refugees.

This local foundation is critical to engaging government officials on sensitive political subjects. To shift a refugee-hosting country from violating refugees’ rights as a matter of course, to honoring those rights and laying the groundwork for integration (whether or not acknowledged as “permanent”), requires a keen sense of local political currents, cultural mores, and power players. Often, it also requires that the movement towards increased honoring of rights be seen as locally driven, as endorsed by those with a deep permanent stake in the well-being of the country. Local leaders are essential in both regards.

Second, its headquarters in the USA supports the national leadership team of the other Asylum Access organizations through coaching, thought-partnership, connections to global decision makers and influencers, and curation and dissemination of lessons from its other offices.

Although its local directors determine their organization’s strategy and tactics within the framework of the shared Asylum Access mission and tools set by the headquarters, along with a few operational requirements that allow the organizations to function as a family, having a coaching- connection-curation structure that actively promotes regular recourse to experts outside the office has allowed the offices to develop strong programmatic and operational management; it is thought that this leads to more consistent positive outcomes. The coaching-connection-cura- tion structure also ensures that local leaders’ expertise is supplemented by knowledge from other local leaders struggling with similar challenges in their respective countries across the globe. Asylum Access directors have repeatedly described the opportunity to connect with their peers as highly valuable in improving their leadership.

Finally, Asylum Access couples national and regional work with global advocacy and movement-building that both helps to influence global trends in refugee response, which in turn can influence national governments, local NGOs, and local offices of international NGOs and multilateral institutions. This collaboration reinforces the systems change efforts of Asylum Access’s national organizations through a complementary focus at the global level.

For example, when it was noticed that the offices in Ecuador, Thailand, and Tanzania all were hearing from their refugee clients that the right to safe, lawful employment was critical, a global campaign was launched to put refugee work rights on the international refugee response agenda. Today, the UNHCR has made refugees’ right to work a priority. As a result, when Asylum Access Tanzania urges the that government to improve refugees’ access to formal sector employment, this message is reinforced in dialogue between the Tanzanian government and the local office of the UNHCR.

This approach—what is known as the Asylum Access model of five tools plus local leadership, coaching-connection-curation, global advocacy, and movement-building—has allowed the organization to secure changes in several countries that improve refugee children’s (and adults’) access to human rights. These changes, discussed in the next section, bring local integration a few steps closer to being a viable option for refugee children and their families.

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