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Global legal community steps up for refugees amid pandemic, providing 165,000 hours of free legal aid

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Tunisian lawyer Wafa Ben Khaled provides legal assistance to a refugee at her office in Sfax, Tunisia, in July 2020.  © UNHCR/Peter Horton

Despite disruptions and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 there were also opportunities. Law firms, legal clinics, community empowerment organizations, and lawyers around the world mobilized in unprecedented ways to ensure access to justice for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced and stateless people.

Almost 165,000 hours of free legal aid were provided to forcibly displaced and stateless people over the course of last year, according to a report issued by PILnet, a global public interest law network, in collaboration with the Global Refugee Forum Legal Community Pledge partners and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

This exceeds the generous pledge made at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in 2019 by more than 80 legal and community empowerment organizations, law firms, bar associations and corporations. The pledge committed to increase resources for those providing legal assistance and to support efforts to protect and find solutions for forcibly displaced and stateless people, including by providing more than 127,000 hours of free, “pro bono”, legal aid.

“The law remains one of the most powerful tools in protecting the rights and guaranteeing the safety of refugees, and internally displaced and stateless people, who as a result of their displacement and legal status may be among those most vulnerable,” said UNHCR’s international protection chief, Gillian Triggs.

“As a result of these efforts, refugees have benefited immensely from life-changing legal advice and representation. Some of these include support with asylum claims or in removal or deportation proceedings; access to documentation; safeguarding access to medical care, employment, housing and education; as well as access to justice and legal remedies to deal with rights violations among so many others”.

The 165,000 hours of free legal aid provided in 2020 surpasses the GRF commitment by 30 per cent. This is an extraordinary feat given the widespread difficulties and constraints imposed by the pandemic globally, including to the working modalities of the organizations and legal providers in being able to serve those forcibly displaced.

Local legal aid organizations, often working together with private sector providers, worked in agile ways and used new methods of delivering essential legal services in the midst of the pandemic. The establishment or scaling-up of remote legal counselling sessions on the phone or over the internet, and mobile legal clinics overcame some of the obstacles of Covid-19 related restrictions on movement.

Access to justice is a fundamental human right. But many refugees and forcibly displaced people are precluded from accessing the services they need because of costs, language barriers and other administrative and procedural difficulties.

The accessibility and availability of legal support to displaced populations remains a core protection priority. The Legal Community Pledge commits to support these efforts. It has uniquely brought together and secured the support of a diverse range of legal stakeholders, including private and public sector partners.

The global legal community is part of the “whole-of-society” approach to help refugees and their host communities, which is at the heart of the Global Compact on Refugees.

More information is available here.

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