RLS's approach to the gender dimension of the asylum-seeking process; our contribution.

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Refugee Legal Support Athens (RLSA) is an organisation that offers free legal support and representation throughout the process of an application for international protection in Athens, Greece. RLSA is a registered Charity in the UK, where the main Operations Branch is based. The primary focus of our casework is Asylum Interview Preparation, Preparation and Submission of Applications for family reunification under the Dublin Regulation and under national immigration rules.

We started in April 2017 when we were based in the Khora Community Centre. More than a year later in and we are still up and running currently out of the Athens Solidarity Centre. The way the Project has been funded so far is through independent donations from Law Firms and Chambers in the UK. We work with English legal practitioners who volunteer with RLSA on a rotating basis to show their solidarity to their Greek colleagues.

Our team in Athens comprises six members of permanent staff who run the clinic together with the volunteer lawyers; two coordinators, a lawyer and three amazing interpreters who identify as refugees. From the very beginning, we understood that most of the people who came to our office were men, usually fathers of large families. They often came alone and were supposed to bring back the news to their children and partners. This very quickly made us realise how this can be severely detrimental not only to the asylum case of the women of the family but also for the future of the whole family. Women and girls in a family quite often have an asylum claim of their own but hesitate to confess or are not given the chance  just because the men of the family are the ones who make the contact with the lawyer. Men's claims are widely considered to be the strongest and the most 'traditional' ones as they usually involve political dissidence and military conscription.

What we strongly believe is that the claims of the women applicants are often more difficult to articulate and substantiate due to lack of visibility of the persecution women face on the basis of gender, appearance and life choices. This realisation prompted us to reach out to a wider audience so that more women access our services. In this context, we organised regular info sessions in the Women Space of the Khora Community Centre. These sessions were dedicated to explaining what asylum means, what steps one needs to take in order to join a family member in Europe and they always ended with Q&As. We later reached out to Melissa Network, an organisation that offers recreational activities and lessons to women migrants. The remit of this partnership was to hold one-on-one sessions with women, give them time to express themselves among an all-women team of lawyers and interpreters and make them feel comfortable in a space where they felt like home.  

One of the cases we focused on for a long time there was a case of two women from the Western Asia, mother and daughter, who came to Greece together having fled persecution in their country of origin. This case was an example of how women have difficulties in expressing their discomfort with the interpreters during the asylum interviews, how even if they complain and raise their concerns they are not always heard and how the cases of young girls are not always taken into consideration as valid asylum claims. In this case, the young girl was at risk of being forcibly married to an old man and her mother was obliged to not wear make-up or jeans by her ex-husband who abused her because she took off her hijab.

These two women went through an asylum interview which did not meet the standards of a fair hearing; their interpreter was a man who only spoke a dialect of their mother tongue and refused to accept that his accent was not clear enough for them to understand. All the times the mother said ‘We do not speak the same dialect, it is hard for me to understand’  the answer that came from the interviewer was ‘if the interpreter or I do not understand something you say, we will ask you to explain or repeat’. These lines were recorded in the official interview transcript. We could not help staying idle to this even if at this point in the process we thought there was very little we could do . In the end, after a lot of work put in drafting representations, coordination with medical experts and a lot of patience from the side of the clients, the outcome made it all worthwhile; mother and daughter were granted refugee status after several months. This case taught us a lot about resilience and the value of intensive attendances with the clients. These women finally summarised what we had been hesitant to put into words in public for so long: ‘women are not heard in Europe either, especially if they come from the East’. These words resonated with us.

One of our primary tasks has now been to observe the procedures and make sure asylum seekers are respected and their rights to a fair procedure are preserved. Having adopted this intensive way of working and through accompanying clients to the Asylum Service and other public services, we noticed how young men are refused access to all sorts of services. 19-year-old MS said to us when he came for his first appointment: ‘If I was white and wore a suit, all doors would open for me. Everyone says that I cannot get housing because I am not a single woman or a disabled person, I am a man and I can work to make money, they say. How will I find a job if I sleep on the streets?Who will ever hire me if my address is Bench No 3 in the Park?’ We were not surprised but it is still shocking to hear; what stood out with MS’s words is the gender element in this discrimination.

This is the ultimate proof of how the patriarchical stereotypes of strong and healthy men are utterly affecting men and ultimately stripping them off their dignity. It took us several months to delve a bit deeper into the patterns of systematic negligence of the underfunded Greek welfare state towards young refugee boys. This population becomes de facto one of the most vulnerable due to their misconceived profile as can-do creatures that can beat poverty, hunger and thirst.

As a legal organisation that fights in favour of human rights and equal opportunities, we knew we had to somehow intervene and show our solidarity with this vulnerable group. Against this backdrop, we set up a Partnership with Velos Youth, a youth Centre in downtown Athens, where young refugee boys go to have lunch, play with a computer, do yoga and learn languages. A good number of them are homeless. Our contribution as a legal organisation is to visit the centre once a week and offer individual sessions with the boys who are in many occasions unaware of the services they can access, are discouraged from attending other services as they fear they might be kicked out because they look older or healthy. We are also delivering training for the staff of the centre on issues like guardianship and data protection.