Plight of asylum seekers in Greece shows pro bono advice cannot and must not be the solution to access to justice gap.

When I arrived in Greece to volunteer for the Refugee Legal Support – Athens (RLS), I was determined to make the most of my time there. I had studied the cases that I was likely to be working on, and the training I had received from RLS volunteers in the UK had given me a detailed overview of the asylum system in Greece. I knew the need for support was high – and I was willing to do all it took to help.

Carrying out my duties as a lawyer in Athens was, of course, not without difficulties. Resources are scarce, demand is high and the unfamiliar system can be an obstacle. I often had to ask the help of other volunteers to translate a Greek Asylum Service (GAS) letter or a doctor’s report written in Greek. But when I made a subtle joke about it, Ammar, a young Afghan father, quickly reassured me, ‘at least there is someone willing to look at them’.

RLS, which was set up by UK lawyers in response to the refugee crisis, provides pro bono legal support to asylum seekers in Athens, and relies on the selflessness of UK lawyers to travel to Athens on a regular basis.

The current asylum system in Greece is relatively new and, until a few years ago, police handled asylum claims. The people working at GAS are friendly and genuinely want to help but they were not expecting numbers to be so overwhelming and the delays are massive.

The GAS unit in Katehaki, where I accompanied Aisha and her daughter, was flooded with people who had gathered since 5am to attend asylum interviews, submit documents or renew their asylum IDs. You can skip the queue if a lawyer accompanies you, so I wasn’t surprised when people approached me to ask for help.

Towards the end of the week, I met Sara. ‘I do not know what else to do and I feel everyone is lying to me,’, she told me in perfect English during our consultation at the Hestia Hellas centre, where RLS is temporarily based. She is a young mother-of-three who was forced to flee her native Iraq because of the war. Her husband had reached Germany and after she arrived in Greece with her children, she made a request to the Greek authorities to be reunited with him. Her face lightened up when she told me that her request had been accepted in March. Unfortunately, the Greek authorities still hadn’t made any arrangements for her and her children to travel to Germany. She had been waiting for more than the legally permitted six months but she couldn’t find a lawyer to help her speed things up.

Albeit brief, my time in Athens allowed me to witness the inspiring work that tireless volunteers do on the ground and the impact that RLS and UK lawyers have in trying to ensure that no refugee is left unrepresented.

But it also showed me more clearly than ever that pro bono advice cannot and must not be the solution to an access to justice gap that is so worryingly wide for such a vast number of people.

I wish I could pinpoint exactly what is needed to collectively do more, as UK lawyers, to help the refugee crisis in countries like Greece. The obvious truth is that there is no easy answer. I find myself constantly torn between an idealistic willingness to help in any possible way and the disheartened understanding that the problem might just be too big for us to handle on a pro bono basis.

A more proactive EU and state-funded legal support system is fundamental to ensuring that as many migrants as possible have access to justice in Greece. Pro bono work can then cover the ideally small gap that any well-resourced system inevitably cannot fill. That is the only durable solution that there can be.

To all the willing and well-intentioned lawyers out there I say – let’s keep investing our skills, time and energy in providing free legal advice to those who cannot access it. But let’s also campaign, petition and pressure governments to ensure that pro bono work never becomes the norm.

  • All names used in this article are fictional

Caterina Franchi is a solicitor in the immigration department of Wilson Solicitors, a legal aid firm that acts for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society.