IHRC Students Investigate European Union Policies Affecting Refugees

BU Law students visited Greece and Bulgaria to understand refugee policies affecting asylum seekers.

BU Law students in Greece with the International Human Rights Clinic
BU Law students Arwa al-Ali and Brendan Sweeney (both ’18) and IHRC Director Susan Akram with refugees at the Greek Forum for Refugees

Students in Boston University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) are investigating European Union pushback policies affecting migrants and refugees in frontline countries like Greece and Bulgaria.

The European Union has adopted a “Common European Asylum System” to facilitate refugee resettlement and process asylum applications among all EU countries. The common system is separated into three tiers: international treaties, EU policies, and domestic policies. The system grants asylum to “people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country,” but refugees are not being split evenly among all EU countries. A majority of the burden is placed on frontline countries, like Greece and Bulgaria, due to EU policies—such as the Dublin Regulation—not  aligning with domestic policies. Under the Dublin Regulation, the first state in which a migrant or refugee arrives has an obligation to examine and file the asylum claim. As a result, migrants are unable to move on to other EU countries, causing an influx of migrants and refugees in these border countries.

“A border country like Greece is in a really tough situation with all the different policies acting on it,” says Brendan Sweeney (’18), one of the students in the clinic. “The economic crisis combined with the refugee crisis is causing a big burden on Greece and I think publicizing that is really crucial.”

IHRC students in Bulgaria
Susan Akram, Catherine Gregory, and Dalia Fuleihan traveled to Sophia, Bulgaria to work with Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria

With Sweeney, Dalia Fuleihan (’18), Catherine Gregory (’18), and Arwa al-Ali (’18), under the supervision of IHRC Director and Clinical Professor Susan Akram, visited Greece and Bulgaria to understand the policies affecting refugees and migrants. Currently, there are not enough lawyers in frontline countries to represent asylum seekers. The clinic’s goal is to provide the necessary research and analysis to assist legal organizations, such as the Refugee Solidarity Network and Center for Legal Aid-Voice, in fighting policies affecting refugees. Students researched the legal frameworks of EU policies and the domestic policies in border countries specifically looking for gaps in protection for asylum seekers.

Dalia Fuleihan and Catherine Gregory met with nonprofit refugee rights organizations and government agencies in Bulgaria and examined access to fair procedures for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers there are assigned to “open” and “closed” detention centers. Built from converted schools or military bases, open centers house general, law abiding refugees, while closed centers house “irregular migrants”—those who crossed without authorization or are a threat to national security. The conditions in these centers are similar to a prison. Akram describes the center environments as dismal, where “piles of mattresses are so dirty and infested with bed bugs you wouldn’t even put your animals on them.”

Fuleihan and Gregory visited open centers in Bulgaria and set up interviews with refugees, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to understand why and how refugees are being detained. “It was like a fact-finding mission,” Fuleihan says. “We were looking at whether these countries were meeting their international obligations and possible avenues to improve the systems.” They are drafting a report from the data they’ve collected that client organizations can use to pursue tangible improvements.

“Speaking with refugees really places a human element on what’s going on,” Fuleihan says. “We read a lot in the news about refugee conflicts in the abstract, but hearing people’s stories really changed the way I thought about things. You hear actual life stories about what they’ve given up, what they’re struggling with, and how the immigration systems that countries have in place are impacting and inhibiting people’s lives.”

BU Law students in Bulgaria with the International Human Rights Clinic
Susan Akram, Catherine Gregory, and Dalia Fuleihan traveled to Sophia, Bulgaria to work with Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria

A surge of asylum seekers in Greece combined with domestic economic troubles have placed a burden on the international refugee process. With 17,200 more applicants in 2016, the country saw the largest absolute increase in the number of first-time applicants—more than seven times the amount compared to 2015, according to EU reports. The Syrian Civil War alone has displaced an estimated 11 million Syrians. Border countries, like Greece, are unable to handle the burden of mass asylum seekers and will often send refugees back to their war stricken countries. Brendan Sweeney and Arwa al-Ali visited Athens and interviewed organizations and migrants in Greece regarding the policies impacting these people.

“The main hope is to document the situation,” Sweeney says. “But in addition to that, we want to provide a good road map for what legal challenges have been made and what legal challenges would be available to assist lawyers in challenging some of the EU policies.”

In documenting the policies and how they affect border countries and the refugees in them, the clinic hopes to offer some solution to how policies and conditions can be improved.

“We are trying to find the most strategic course of action that will help lawyers deal with the worst of the problems,” Akram says. “That’s where we can add our research, work, and strategic thinking.”

Fuleihan says the work has taught her what real refugee advocacy means. She hopes to go into international human and refugee rights law in the future.

“These experiences are going to be incredibly valuable,” she says. “Learning about the system, which organizations are involved in this kind of work, and really what it means to be a human rights lawyer are all things I’ve gotten experience with this year.”

Over four-thousand migrants have died in the Mediterranean while trying to seek EU refuge in 2016 and more than 75,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece and the Western Balkans due to other countries shutting their borders. The clinic’s work is beneficial for students who want to gain hands-on experience in human rights law, but more importantly, it is looking at a worldwide problem and utilizing the law to offer possible solutions.

“If we can even make a small impact by just letting people know what’s going on there or coming up with small strategies for our client organizations to start chipping away at the obstacles that refugees are facing, I think that’s the most important thing,” Fuleihan says.

Reported by Greg Yang (CAS’17)

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