This month we hear from York alum Philip Worthington, Managing Director of European Lawyers in Lesvos. He shares the story of his work in Lesvos, Greece, where he has helped provide legal assistance to over 11,000 refugees on the Greek Islands.
I studied History (BA) at York from 2003 to 2006 and then qualified as a lawyer, working in a law firm in London from 2010 to 2016. In January 2016, I travelled to the Greek island of Lesvos, where I initially worked with refugees as a volunteer, and later founded the charity “European Lawyers in Lesvos” (ELIL). Our work is based on belief in the overriding critical importance of upholding the rule of law and defending human rights by providing meaningful access to free, independent legal assistance.
The Context: Refugees in Greece
In March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal created a legal crisis which, over the past five years, has stranded tens of thousands of people on the Greek Aegean islands whilst their claims for asylum are processed. They live in camps and reception centers in terrible conditions and with limited access to basic services. These facilities are almost always critically over capacity. Last year alone, over 74,600 people, the vast majority of whom fled Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, arrived in Greece after making the dangerous sea crossing in search of safety.
When refugees arrive on one of the Greek islands, they apply for asylum. The right to asylum is enshrined in international, EU and domestic law and the asylum process – which determines whether a refugee will be allowed to stay in Greece or be returned – is a legal one. However, there is no state-provided legal aid available for people before their decisive asylum interview, meaning that most attend without having spoken to a lawyer. The only way someone can receive legal assistance at this stage is through one of the very few NGOs on the islands. On Lesvos, there are only around 25 lawyers to assist over 10,000 people.
The already dire situation has deteriorated over the past months. Covid-19 outbreaks have restricted access to vital services and the fire that destroyed Moria camp (and ELIL’s offices) on Lesvos in September has resulted in the relocation of almost 10,000 refugees to a temporary new camp on the island.
European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL)
The establishment of ELIL was motivated by two key beliefs. First, that meaningful access to legal assistance is a fundamental right. Secondly, that the situation in Greece is not just a Greek issue, but a European one. ELIL was set up in order to enable European asylum lawyers to volunteer on Lesvos and Samos and, working with ELIL’s Greek lawyers, provide legal assistance to refugees on the islands. Its creation represents the first time that lawyers from across Europe volunteer in another European member state in response to a humanitarian situation.
Our main activity is the provision of one-on-one legal consultations to prepare refugees for their asylum interview, offering legal information, practical support and tailored advice at this crucial stage of the process. We also provide legal assistance in relation to family reunification applications. In addition to this, we provide support to unaccompanied children, particularly those incorrectly registered as adults. We have assisted over 650 unaccompanied children since 2016, but the need remains great – earlier this year, there were almost 1,100 unaccompanied children in Moria alone. This work focuses on family reunification and challenging incorrect age assessments, with our team also assisting children with asylum interview preparation where relevant.
My role is to manage the organisation as a whole, which involves organizing our teams in Lesvos and Samos, overseeing our day to day work and coordinating with our partners in Greece and across Europe. It also includes determining our strategy and areas for advocacy/awareness-raising (this year we have focused on pressing European governments to relocate unaccompanied children from the camps) and representing ELIL at events and meetings.
In summer 2020, after four years of successful work on Lesvos, ELIL extended its operations to the island of Samos, where 5,000 people live in Vathy camp, which has an official capacity of just 650. Our new project will contribute to considerably increasing the legal capacity on the island.
Along with in-person assistance, in recent months our volunteer lawyers from across Europe have also begun to provide consultations remotely from home due to Covid-19, ensuring that we are able to support as many people as possible despite lockdown restrictions and challenges to legal access.
An Enduring Need
My motivation for establishing ELIL was to use my skills, knowledge and experience to help people. As a lawyer, I knew that access to legal assistance can be decisive to the outcome of a case. Nowhere is that more profoundly apparent than in the asylum process, where the support of a lawyer can make the difference between someone being granted protection or being returned to face the threat of persecution, war or even death.
Our work demonstrates how important access to legal assistance can be for refugees. Of those we have assisted, 74.5% have been granted asylum (compared to an average of 46.5% in Greece). We have also helped over 1,500 people, including almost 900 children, be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe.
ELIL’s legal assistance can be decisive. For example, in late 2019, an unaccompanied child was registered as an adult upon arrival to Lesvos and placed in detention. We liaised with the police and the Greek Asylum service, accompanied the child to their interview and obtained a postponement and a referral for age assessment. We then submitted objections against detention at court. The child was subsequently released from detention and moved to the children’s section of camp:
“I was so happy the day I was released [from detention] and taken to the children’s section [in the camp]. For me, this was the moment I knew that I was in Europe. I believe that my lawyer really helped me and cared for my life – they were there to advise me whenever I needed help. I really appreciated their support, and that of the whole organisation. I was lucky to have a lawyer. Many children don’t have one and they are confused and don’t know what to do.”
Legal support for family reunification applications can also be crucial. We assisted Ahmed, from Syria, who arrived on Lesvos in 2019 and has been on the island for over a year. With ELIL’s support, his family reunification application has been approved and he will soon join his wife in France, who he last saw over a year and a half ago:
“If a person is ill, they must go to a doctor. If a person has a legal problem, they have to choose someone who has this qualification, as is the case for European Lawyers in Lesvos. They gave me back hope when I was losing my hope. I thought I would never be reunited with my wife again. When I received the news [that I would be reunited with my wife], my wife’s and my own feeling were indescribable – like being born again.”
The past year has brought many challenges that have eroded access to legal support, which has been exacerbated by the implementation of an increasingly strict asylum framework in Greece. In this context, protecting human rights, upholding the rule of law and guaranteeing meaningful access to legal assistance is more important than ever.
To learn about the University of York’s support for asylum seeking students, visit york.ac.uk/york-unlimited/our-priorities/student-to-shine/eas/