An overrun immigration system on Lesvos has left thousands of asylum seekers without meaningful access to legal assistance. Under the banner of European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), over 100 lawyers have volunteered to help more than 5,000 people but resources are finite. ELIL are looking for donations to continue providing this essential service.
European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL) was launched by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) and the German Bar Association (DAV) in June 2016 and was incorporated as an independent charitable, non-profit organisation in October 2017. The project was developed following the European Bar Presidents’ Conference in Vienna in February 2016 and has been supported financially by 37 separate European Bars and Law Societies. Considerable assistance and support has also been extended by the Greek Bars and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Greek Government to guarantee access and provide legal assistance on international protection needs to migrants in Lesvos/Lesbos.
The need for legal assistance was and remains acute. In 2015 the UNHCR estimated that over 573,000 migrants arrived on the island of Lesvos alone. The population of that island is about 86,000 persons and its legal profession consists of about 100 members. The asylum system on the island had originally been designed about 20 years ago and anticipated about a dozen applications for asylum every year. Whilst the numbers arriving substantially reduced following the migration arrangement made between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016 there remained very considerable numbers of migrants on the island. In addition the number of arrivals is increasing once more. Four times the number of migrants arrived in the first four months of 2018 than during the equivalent period in 2017.
Our experience shows that a multitude of vulnerable persons arrive with no appreciation of what asylum actually means. Whilst there is provision for some legal aid at appeal stage and excellent work is being carried out by members of the legal profession in Lesvos at appeal stage, the right to asylum enshrined in Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights can only be effective where legal aid is provided both at first instance and appeal stages not simply in Lesvos but in all of the so-called hotspots in Greece and Italy.
ELIL was inspired by belief in the fundamental importance of upholding the rule of law and ensuring meaningful access to legal assistance. There are currently more than 8,500 asylum seekers on Lesvos, the majority of whom are from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of these often severely traumatised people have a limited understanding about their legal rights, the asylum process and the criteria applied when their applications are assessed. Many attend their asylum interview without having spoken to a lawyer and may be unaware of the possibility of reunification with their family in other EU member states. ELIL’s team of Greek asylum lawyers and volunteer European asylum lawyers works to address this by providing pro bono, independent legal assistance to as many asylum seekers on Lesvos as possible. The volunteer lawyers support, and work closely with, their colleagues from the Greek Bar Associations.
ELIL works in Moria Camp (the main migrant centre on Lesvos) and its primary focus is the provision of one-on-one legal consultations to help asylum seekers prepare for their asylum interviews. ELIL also provides assistance with regard to family reunification applications under the Dublin Regulation.
ELIL’s work has been made possible by a remarkable spirit of volunteerism which, in the last two years, has prompted over 121 lawyers from 17 European countries to give up their holiday or take unpaid leave to provide legal assistance to more than 5,000 people (over 3,100 cases). Further information regarding volunteering with ELIL is available on our website.
Unfortunately, the challenge is getting bigger: ELIL is one of very few organisations providing legal assistance and as stated arrivals are increasing. This puts great strain on the members of the Lesvos legal profession at a time when the need and importance for legal assistance is greater than ever.
The right to asylum is enshrined in Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This provision gives effect to the basic protection principles contained in the Geneva Convention of 1951 to which all EU Member States are contracting parties. As lawyers we all know that as the course of a case is invariably set at its commencement (at a time when serious mistakes can be made which may not be reparable), it is therefore crucial that people in need of protection arriving from war-torn zones in the Middle East are provided with competent legal advice from experienced practitioners. Our resources and ability are finite. We need financial assistance to provide this essential service. All donations no matter how large or small are most welcome. A donation of £44/€50 enables on average a full eight hours of legal assistance from a qualified and practising European asylum legal practitioner to be provided on a one-to-one basis for people in need. Please visit us for further information on the project including donations on our website at www.elil.eu
Phil Worthington, Solicitor (Eng and Wales) Managing Director, European Lawyers in Lesvos
David Conlan Smyth S.C.(Ireland), CCBE Migration Law Committee Chairman