Why Malta and the EU are in desperate need of specialists in Refugee Law.

‘Refugee’, ‘migrant’, ‘crisis’ – they are all buzzwords of today’s world, synonymous with a disgruntled right wing and a sympathetic left, and an unavoidable part of daily media consumption. One cannot open a paper, look at a news website, or view a television news bulletin without coming across at least one of these words flashed across a headline accompanied by harrowing images of families crammed into dinghies or languishing in refugee camps in squalid conditions.  Whilst everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter, there seems to be very little in the way of reliable, legal, sources offering advice and guidance on the ever-escalating situation.

The European refugee crisis started in early 2015 when widespread political and social disruption in the Middle East and North Africa caused a large spike in the numbers of unauthorised foreign migrants arriving in the European Union.  This large influx of people over such a short period has put pressure on EU Member States and many have been ill-equipped to deal with the complex legalities surrounding asylum seekers, irregular migrants, and refugees, which in turn has led to excessive delays when processing individual cases. Each person’s case and set of circumstances is completely unique and the EU judicial system and the legal frameworks of its various jurisdictions are not prepared or experienced enough to handle such matters.

Refugee Law is a complex and intricate type of law which is completely different from any other and would require a lawyer to undertake additional specialist training to have the authority to advise accurately. Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University has stated that law courses just do not provide adequate training on matters pertaining to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and there is a desperate need for students and lawyers alike to consider pursuing a specialisation in this field.

Whilst humanitarian law and international human rights law are areas which receive a lot of interest from scholars, students and practicing advocates, there remains many differences of opinion with regards to their relationship to each other and their applicability to the cases of refugees and asylum seekers. This is not only an important point for debate but it is a part of a wider discussion on the issues arising from fragmentation of international law. Some scholars believe that Refugee Law should form a part of a larger normative system, along with international human rights law and humanitarian law, which should seek to protect the rights of humans always and at all costs. Others believe that Refugee Law should apply strictly to situations that mean an individual seeks protection because of armed conflict and military occupation. The fact that this very dichotomy of opinions exists highlights the fact that more education and training is required within this area and that special attention should be given to Refugee Law and on educating not just legal professionals, but members of the public as well.

Let us for one moment imagine that a war broke out in Europe. Within days or weeks, as happened in both WWI and WWII, millions of EU Citizens would find themselves displaced and being forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in a different country or continent. When faced with not only leaving your own country, but with travelling a long distance to a foreign, alien place- would you know what your rights are? How would you ask for asylum or navigate a potentially complex legal system in a different language to achieve refugee status? It is a growing concern that most the EU population would not know their rights if faced with a situation like this and if they looked to the assistance of legal professionals, unless that professional is one of the very few that is specially trained, it is unlikely that they would be qualified to assist.

Dr Harrell-Bond recently travelled to Malta to lead a discussion organised by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society as well as being a keynote speaker at the University of Malta’s conference on migration and mobility. In her speeches, she warned of the dangers of not knowing how to process an individual’s application and how deportation can put people at risk of the death penalty, trial for treason, imprisonment, and torture. She added that she felt it was ridiculous that people were being unfairly returned to their country of origin without due care and attention being given to their plight and personal situation. It was also stated that even persons that had been resident in a country for many years and had made valuable contributions to society, were being sent back because of a system ill-equipped to handle such cases.

Whilst it is imperative to ensure that refugee status, humanitarian protection and asylum is only awarded to those that are genuinely deserving of it, it is pertinent to note that there is a distinct lack of legal practitioners with the theoretic and practical experience necessary to make such a distinction with confidence, let alone provide advice and assistance to those in need. With no resolution for the end of conflict in Africa and the Middle East, one cannot expect any noted decrease in the numbers of persons seeking assistance in Europe so it is in the hands of the governments, lawyers, and lawmakers to arm themselves with the knowledge to provide fair, intelligent, and accurate advice.


Please follow this link to read it in The Times of Malta.

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