John Balouziyeh, Attorney at Dentons Law Firm
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq, coupled with the war in Afghanistan and political unrest throughout the broader Middle East, has led to the greatest humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 65.6 million displaced people globally, the highest level since the end of World War II. Famine, war and persecution have led millions of refugees to flee from their homes in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. For thousands of these refugees, their first steps on European soil are taken on the island of Lesvos, Greece, just a few miles from the Turkish coast.
Upon their arrival to Lesvos, refugees are registered and assigned to one of several refugee camps. They then receive their identity cards, a medical evaluation and a date for an interview with the European Union’s (E.U.) European Asylum Support Office or with the Greek Asylum Service.
Many of these refugees arrive without a clear understanding of the asylum process, or of the criteria for granting asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention. ELIL assists them by providing information, counseling and legal assistance. A team of ELIL project lawyers, accompanied by translators and legal assistants, act as refugees’ legal counsel, advising them of their rights, the process for applying for asylum, and the criteria for international and subsidiary protection.
To date, ELIL has provided legal assistance to over 1,800 cases (over 2,500 people in total) fleeing persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, Eritrea and other countries. Working with ELIL, I have been able to join other project lawyers in preparing asylum seekers for their first instance interviews, and helping ELIL reach a 64% success rate of first instance decisions in cases that were granted international protection.
Day in the Life of an ELIL Project Lawyer
While at Moria, I worked with a team of attorneys from France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Spain and the U.K., as well as legal assistants from Germany and the Netherlands, and translators from Iran and the U.S. When our team reached ELIL’s container at Moria Refugee Camp each morning, we were greeted by a long queue of asylum seekers. Throughout the day, we were inundated with inquiries, clients and calls. We saw victims of torture fleeing their countries due to political or religious persecution; unaccompanied minors seeking to be reunited with their families; families that dodged bullets and bombs while fleeing to Turkey; asylum seekers that have been kidnapped and held in ISIS indoctrination camps before being released; Iraqis who have been captured, detained and flagellated by militias because they belonged to the wrong religious sect or ethnic group; Yezidis who have been raped and forced into sexual slavery. These clients come to us with visible scars of war, but their hope for a future is unconquerable.
Volunteers in the camp work six days a week to keep up with an ever-increasing caseload, preparing applicants for their first instance interviews with the European Asylum Support Office. We run mock interviews, advise refugees on the criteria that will be used to evaluate their cases under the Refugee Convention (a reasonable fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, if forced to return to the last country of residence), and assist applicants in preparing evidence to support their applications. This evidence often consists of letters, photos, newspaper articles and medical reports. We have also prepared at least 90 cases that have been accepted under the family reunification mandate of the Dublin III Regulation.
Although I have been heavily involved in refugee work since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, nothing has prepared me for serving as a Project Lawyer with ELIL. Project attorneys must garner strength and mental toughness when sitting in a room with a refugee family, listening to them recount why they fled Iraq or Syria when their cities came under occupation and indiscriminate shelling, and how they witnessed the deaths or drowning of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers or children as they undertook the precarious journey to Europe. It is one thing to review a medical statement corroborating lung damage caused by gas chambers and other evidence of barbaric torture; it is another thing to witness for oneself the flagellation marks, the bullet holes and the burn scars of clients fleeing from war. Nothing can prepare you for a child who recounts how both his parents and sister were murdered by a militia in cold blood, and how he felt helpless and unable to go to the authorities for help. I have had several clients break down in tears while speaking with me. I always try to keep my composure, but on more than one occasion, I could not hold back my tears.
Challenges of Working at Moria Refugee Camp
Work at Moria Refugee Camp is deeply rewarding, but it is not always easy. Tensions often mount among refugees who have been waiting eight to nine months for asylum decisions. Many of them feel imprisoned while awaiting their decisions in the camp. When tensions boil over, riots ensue.
It was a sad moment when ELIL’s legal clinic container was burned down in riots last year, and an even sadder moment when the replacement container was again incinerated in riots earlier this summer. Undeterred, ELIL project lawyers rolled up their sleeves after each incident and got right to work on restoring what was lost. Their determination in serving refugees, even when it means putting themselves in harm’s way, is inspiring.
Importance of ELIL’s work
Most asylum seekers attend their first instance interviews without having consulted a lawyer. ELIL is the only organization that provides asylum seekers with information and tailored advice at the first stage of the asylum process. Believing that the provision of independent pro bono legal assistance is a vital human right, ELIL offers legal consultations to help applicants prepare for their first instance interviews. The project aims to ensure that every person seeking international protection is able to consult an independent lawyer at no cost.
ELIL’s legal service is invaluable because the first instance interview is the most critical stage in the asylum application process. Asylum seekers only have one chance to make their case for international protection, yet most applicants attend their first instance interviews without ever having spoken with an attorney. Without ELIL’s pro bono legal assistance, many refugees might not give full accounts of their stories, or might hold back critically important details of torture or other traumatic episodes, since recounting these details can be so emotionally taxing. Others might fail to present the evidence required to meet their burden of proving the persecution that they fear. For many refugees, ELIL’s important work could thus spell the difference between asylum and deportation.
A Call to Action
Let us not turn a blind eye to the suffering of refugees and retort with indifference, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Let us instead reaffirm our common humanity and respond as though these refugees were our own mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. When a child is left orphaned by a war, it should be as though our own child has been left to fend for himself in a cold, indifferent world. There is a role for each of us to play in alleviating his suffering. This role can be as simple as writing a check, but it can be much more. Whether you are an architect, attorney, carpenter, engineer, entrepreneur, journalist, photographer or teacher, there is a role you can play in relieving suffering and restoring normalcy to lives impacted by war.
In joining refugees in rebuilding their lives and reclaiming their dreams, we restore their hope and revive their faith in the future. In sowing bountifully, we will reap bountifully, for seeds of hope generously planted will yield a generous harvest—a bright future, a world that guarantees the dignity and worth of all people and secures their fundamental rights and freedoms. Let us all work together towards a world where hope overcomes all things.
About the Author
John Balouziyeh is an attorney at the international law firm, Dentons, where he advises clients on international law, foreign investment, defense contracting and government procurements. His work with the Norwegian Refugee Council and International Refugee Assistance Project has been nominated for CSR awards by Legal Week / CCME, The American Lawyer and The International Financial Law Review, and won Legal Week / CCME’s “CSR Team of the Year” awards in 2015, 2016 and 2017. John is the author of Hope and a Future: The Story of Syrian Refugees (Time Books, 2016), which is available as a paperback, hardcover, eBook and audio book (Jechco Studios, 2017). John and the audio book narrator, Gary Roelofs, are donating all of their book royalties to humanitarian agencies assisting Syrian refugees.
“Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016,” UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency (2016), available at < http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/5943e8a34/global-trends-forced-displacement-2016.html>.
European Union Regulation No. 604/2013, which determines the EU Member State responsible for examining an asylum claim and provides for the transfer of the asylum seeker to that State.