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How To Start a Refugee Law Clinic

Have you ever asked your parents where your ancestors came from, and not only your grandparents? You can bet, that those who live in the same place where generations resided for a hundred years are minority nowadays. That’s because migrations have been happening throughout history in all parts of the world.

If you ever considered helping people who are asylum-seekers and refugees in your country, first you need to make sure that you understand that leaving the homes for a better life is what brought many of us in the places where we live now. Therefore, you need to develop sensibility, empathy and deep understanding of human rights that are guaranteed to every living being, no matter what is their place of origin.

Starting a Refugee Law Clinic can be a great method of providing appropriate help to refugees and asylum-seekers. A Refugee law clinic is a voluntary organization run by law students providing free legal advice to asylum-seekers and refugees. Within the clinic, students use their knowledge and practice their skills under the supervision of professors and practicing lawyers in this field. The law clinic also offers a wide range of benefits. Besides supporting people who really need help and practical education of students, it helps local NGOs and small private law firms to conduct work related to refugee law, since the capacity limitation is one of the common challenges. Also, unstable funds can be obstacles to tackle this kind of cases. In addition to this, by starting a legal clinic or cooperating with one, these organizations can get trained and motivated young people who are ready to work and contribute to it right after graduation.

But, before starting the clinic, you need to make sure that two main objectives will be achieved.

Firstly, you need to ensure that by participating in the legal clinic’s work, students will get the opportunity to learn how to develop a relationship with clients, to use their knowledge in order to provide proper legal help and to gain experience by monitoring  and leading the process from the very beginning;

Second thing is to make sure that asylum-seekers and refugees get free-of-charge legal help provided by students and supervised by professors and lawyers. Usually, those are people who couldn’t get legal aid otherwise.

As you can see, it is of great importance to have support provided by professionals in this field. In order to get more specific knowledge of the refugee law, students will need to have additional lectures focusing on topics that will ensure they understood events that are reasons why people seek for asylum or refugee status, and ways of providing them with legal help. Within the university, professors will be glad to support this kind of initiative. You just need to present your idea and show the willingness that you can develop it or modify so it can fit in the university’s programs.

Clinic’s approach needs to ensure that clients are aware of their rights as applicants for international protection, as well as of the procedure for applying for refugee status. Students will learn how to interview clients and collect all the necessary information for the case. They will also need to keep the client informed about his or her case throughout the proceedings, and therefore students have to follow the flow of the process from the very first beginning and notify the client about any new information that can be valuable for closing their case. Since students cannot represent clients before courts, they can help lawyers prepare the case and assist in court hearings and drafting appeals for clients, as well. In order to get certain information, there will be a need for researches that can also be conducted by students.

Besides providing help for asylum-seekers, the legal clinic can offer assistance for other foreigners that need international protection. Those can be human trafficking victims or stateless people, but also it can be involved in related procedures such as family reunification, naturalization, birth registration, etc. It would be useful and motivating if students participating in a legal clinic take part in international initiatives and moot court competitions since refugee law is international matter.

By far, you probably have some ideas where you can establish your legal clinic, but it is important to point out two options.

When the legal clinic is situated at the university, the university needs to provide technical capacities such as rooms, computers and other equipment that is needed for the clinic’s functioning. As already mentioned, professors need to be actively involved in the clinic’s work. In order to motivate students to take part in this project, they should be entitled to gain some credits for their participation. When young people decide to get involved in projects like this, it is usually considered that motivation comes from the possibility to obtain practical and professional experience as well as to help people in need. Therefore, remuneration shouldn’t be what students get for that kind of work. But some motivations such as fees or prizes for the best and most active students or their involvement in other paid projects can be considered.

Unlike this in-house method, the clinic can also be based in local NGO which doesn’t require such involvement of university. Professors’ help can be combined with theoretical lessons and practical part can be led by NGO or lawyers. This method is called an external method.

Both options have its challenges so it is important to thoroughly plan the project and all of its activities before deciding whether you will choose a university-based clinic or make it a part of the program within the NGO.

Regarding the in-house method, the university needs to be sure that it has enough human capacities for supervising and operating the clinic. Human resources are also important, so make sure that teachers will be willing to take such responsibility and supervise student’s work, as well as help them conduct tasks. Also, good cooperation with local NGO and legal practitioners is required, but you need to ensure that there is sufficient funding that will support the clinic since it requires certain costs.

On the other side, if representatives of an NGO think of establishing the clinic for refugee law, besides human and time resources, fundings and technical capacities, they need to take into consideration what benefits will the organization have from it. Funding for the clinic can be granted from funds, different foundations, and programs, private companies or law firms that recognize the importance of such projects.

Unlike internships, where students can shadow lawyers and learn from watching,  the clinic provides the unique opportunity for students to gain and use practical skills while in the same time they learn how to be responsible and successfully conduct all phases of the process. Like any other, Refugee Law Clinics cannot function without long-term motivation and enthusiasm. We are sure that you have what it takes and we invite you to check on some good examples around the world. There are plenty of hard-working students supported by professionals already helping people in need, and it would be great if you can join them.

About the author

Ivana Milovac

I am a motivated young lawyer always chasing the opportunities to learn new things, gain experiences and grow professionally. I worked for leading NGOs in the field of environmental protection in Serbia, Environment Engineering Group, so my fields of interest are especially Environmental Law and Human Rights. I coordinated several projects, and took part in many more (training courses, youth exchanges, seminars, job shadowings, conferences, etc.), especially in the following fields: climate changes, water protection, and waste management.