Not every refugee is fortunate enough to have a lawyer

Interview with refugee lawyer Claire Deery

Perhaps the clearest line the pandemic drew is between those who are at home and those who don’t have one. Pandemic Academic met with refugee lawyer Claire Deery to talk about the changes for asylum seekers and refugees under the current crisis.

As we met on 1st May, my first question to Claire was about the connections between migration and work.

Claire Deery: There are economic, social and cultural fundamental rights. People who migrate far, who bear the burden of separation from their families, from their home, why should they not also be included in the definition of refugees, because they are also in the need of protection. Especially in a situation like right now, where we see how people’s support networks are collapsing at the moment – even if these had been precarious conditions in the first place. These people are often looked upon as economic refugees (“Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge”). This has happened often when I represent clients from the Balkan states, because the perception is that the classic definition of a refugee status – that is a claim based on persecution due to religious beliefs or political opinions – could not be applied. However, these problems still exist in these countries. It may appear that a single Roma mother leaves the country because she cannot survive and her economic circumstances are bad. But the reason she faces that situation is because she faces discrimination on the job market, in the public health system based on her identity. Her kid may also fall sick and she would need access to a doctor who would agree to threat the child. Some medicine may not even available in the Balkans. All those lives affected by those circumstances still deserve protection.

Pandemic Academic: At the moment it seems that there is a lot of change in the differentiation between people who are moving around, new hierarchies are being put up and new categories are found to describe who is “essential” in a moment of crisis and who is not. Do you think that the argument of the economic refugee just coming to countries like Germany for better working conditions almost seems grotesque and ironic in times where the country is in fact desperately trying to attract people to cut asparagus and to do other harvest-related jobs?  

CD: Yes, a crisis – be it a pandemic or an economic crisis – always hits the weakest first. For example, in the Greek economic crisis, refugees were the first ones getting a flavour of austerity politics. They did not get any food anymore, no health coverage, no place to sleep. The same happened in Italy, various refugees reported about the horrible conditions in the refugee shelters there. Judges found this very hard to believe, they thought, why should Italy be so bad? Good weather, good food, good wine… Why don’t they want to stay there? I think in India we can now also see many economic problems and struggles of survival that already existed but became visible through the crisis. Another example is the US, where you can also see the connections between socio-economic status and the probability of catching the virus. This brings many of those links between economic issues and social marginalization very clear to light.

PA: But in the beginning it seemed almost as if the virus would halt the movement of people regardless of their social status, maybe even as if people privileged and rich enough to jet set around the world would be affected even more than others.

CD: I believe that privileged people – to which I would include myself – have now found comfortable arrangements how to deal with the situation. Whereas it is impossible to make any predictions about the future it seems very likely that we will get off relatively lightly here in Germany. The now-famous virologist Christian Drosten said that what will happen in other parts of the world, especially in African countries, will become a catastrophe. Even in other countries like India but also here in Europe we may know about famous people passing away more than we may know the numbers about other people because of all the undetected cases. As a refugee lawyer I am really concerned about this because just as we already saw climate refugees –it took almost a decade for that to be recognized by mainstream debates – we may also see people fleeing from the epidemic now. For example, there are many files in my office where people report that they had to leave because of the Ebola outbreak.

PA: Does this get recognized by the courts?

CD: Not at all! Because they managed to contain Ebola very soon, that was not accepted even though it was the reason why people left. I could imagine this will happen with COVID-19 as well. But the borders are sealed like never before. They were already sealed before the pandemic but now the fear of the spread of the disease will be used as a pretext to increase security measures at the European borders and strengthen Frontex. Surely, this all builds on projects that are already going on, they will not even save people from boats anymore, they did not do that before, but now that will be justified by saying that those refugees could be sick. Also there will be even less willingness to let people from Libya and other countries come here.

PA: So you see less scope for solidarity at the moment?

CD: In Germany there will maybe be an improvement in payments for care personnel in hospitals etc. Demands for that have better chances at the moment to get heard. However, that does not mean people are more willing to show solidarity with refugees in Greece. We see that this is a huge discussion over the last weeks ending symbolically with the acceptance of 50 unaccompanied children which is a joke. I think in the long term people may develop a broader perspective about what is happening in the world but that is not automatically going to translate into taking up responsibility to act. The way our political system is structured, it builds too much on irrational fears, of fears of infected people entering the country, of electoral losses that this may cause. We won’t see it directly with Angela Merkel because due to the opening of the borders in 2015 she will be very cautious with everyone she lets in now because she most likely thinks that her decision then has benefited the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Even though I think that the far-right would have gained support anyway, because those refugees would not have disappeared somehow. They would have been stuck in Bulgaria or Hungary and this could have had severe consequences. Under humanitarian considerations, Merkel’s decision was the only one possible but now a few years later in Greece is done nothing. Or in Turkey.

Even though in the long term camps will be closed on the islands and people will probably be brought to mainland Greece, I don’t think this will solve anything. They won’t have access there either for a fair process to seek asylum, and there will not be a screening to see who is especially in need for protection, no special provisions for minors. Everyone will be left to their own fate where the strongest wins which is particularly miserable, if you think that working with refugees should actually mean to grant protection.

PA: Are people in the camps scared of the virus?

Yes, even though there are also positive stories of people opening up their own sewing rooms to produce masks, I heard there are kids walking around with disinfectants walking around and making sure that everyone walking around sanitizes their hands. But you cannot maintain social distancing because no one even counts the people anymore in the camps, we only know that it is way beyond capacity. There are also so many illegal camps around the official ones. When a member of our law firm was in Moria two years ago, there were already two times as many inhabitants than it had been constructed for. So now the over-occupancy is just colossal.

PA: What’s the situation in Germany?

CD: A court in Leipzig, in Saxony had decided that it should not be allowed to host people in large-scale refugee accommodations as the risk of contagion is too high. So we are considering to file a lawsuit here in Lower Saxony as well. I am in touch with many clients living in initial reception shelters who want to get out of there but the problem is that many of the staff members there are in home office. So we hope that next week when the restart all their activities they will also decide who can leave or who should stay in those centers, whether private accommodations could be found for refugees. Because the conditions in those collective accommodations are such that sometimes there are four people living in a room sharing a bathroom and a kitchen thereby making social distancing impossible. Imagine then how there are various accommodation centers where a quarantine has been imposed and usually about 400 people living under one roof have been forced to stay indoors for weeks.

PA: What about solidarity initiatives like #wirhabenplatz?

CD: Of course there are some initiatives, like #wirhabenplatz or Seebrücke and yes, there were people who have been willing to let refugees stay in their homes but there is no legal framework or mechanism in place for that. If the corona emergency is going on for longer, these are clearly circumstances that have to change. According to the principle of proportionality, it may have been acceptable to quarantine people under those conditions, but if this is going on the entire summer, those large collective accommodation will have to be closed. Or at least to allow everyone to have a private room and allocate others to other accommodation. There are so many empty facilities that could be used for that, especially the hotels are all empty now, so there should be enough space.

PA: So what can individually really do? Or is it only the state that we should address to change the situation?

CD: The municipality has the only authority to decide where refugees can stay. So it is their call to make a plan for decentralized accommodation. They could make a deal with the local youth hostel, with hotels, because they would need the income generated from it as well.

PA: But are there any silver linings? Are there also new possibilities arising out of this crisis? You had mentioned to me in another conversation that deportations are put on hold at the moment.

CD: Yes, there are some positive effects. For example, due to the cancellation of all in-person meetings, there is more time to closely study my client’s files. Judges and the administration also benefit from that. I managed to solve many cases recently because people had time to look at the evidence and actually engage with the case. So fortunately, many people will get their permit to stay. On the other hand, refugees cannot search work, cannot seek apprenticeships and these positions are a condition to file an application to get your papers to stay here. It is important that the refugees will not suffer from this, or in other words, the courts should recognize these conditions. Grades and certificates are also difficult to obtain right now in order to apply to jobs, or cooperation duties such as visiting embassies are also not possible to comply with. But the overall effect at the moment is that my clients are less scared, less nervous to be deported or that anything will happen to them, it gives them a little bit of calm to know that no such thing could happen to them in the next weeks. All titles and permits to stay are automatically extended for the period of the lock-down. The only concern we still have at the moment is that people get cuts in their stipends. They are lowered by the authorities on the grounds that people are not working anymore, but this actually should not happen, as this is not their fault that workplaces are currently shut. And not everyone is fortunate enough to have a lawyer.

PA: So it seems there are still some ties to notions of “productivity” and subsidiary payments are only granted when people are working.

CD: Yes, and we also don’t really know sometimes on which grounds these cuts are made, because the municipal administration is currently shut. But there has been a new decisions that courts will start working again from Monday, 3rd May. Some judges had already resumed working again, even though of course under conditions such as wearing masks and so on. However, physical contact has always been limited at courts (also under normal circumstances I generally do not hug the judge) so there is not too much difficulty. Except that there are sometimes circumstances where clients would need consolation and that becomes more challenging under social distancing conditions. The other day a women had to cry while telling her story and I wish I could have encouraged her a little more.

Sometimes my clients come to my office and when I ask why they arrive even though I only take phone appointment these days, they say “Oh, we just wanted to check in and see if you are still there.” (laughs).

The interview was recorded in German and can be accessed in full here.  (According to Corona social distance rules we met outside, so the privacy of the conversation may have sometimes been interrupted by singing blackbirds and a woodpecker.)

Claire Deery is a refugee lawyer in Göttingen, Germany and a member of the Refugee Council of Lower Saxony. She gained nation-wide attention with a libel suit against the conservative CSU politician Alexander Dobrindt for defaming her and everyone involved in refugee solidarity actions as being part of an “Anti-Abschiebe Industrie” (anti-deportation industry).




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