Lawyers have a crucial role to play in upholding migrants’ rights and dignity.
‘Today I want to talk about immigration.’ That was how the prime minister began his recent speech. And this week I too want to talk about immigration.
(Reading his speech was like getting lost in a badly written Lord Denning judgment, full of very short sentences: ‘To which I say: hang on a moment.’ And: ‘Far from it.’ And: ‘We should be clear.’ Was it he or we who cannot cope with more complexity? Whenever I hear him, I am strongly reminded of a customer services manager rushing from event to event during a catastrophic event which has just overwhelmed the department store for which he works.)
The prime minister chose to concentrate on intra-EU migration. That is a strand of immigration which strongly affects the ability to control government spending, on benefits and education for instance, because of the free movement of people within the EU. And there are electoral reasons, in the form of UKIP, why he might choose to concentrate on that aspect. It raises issues of EU law, but not the troubling human rights challenges of other sorts of migration.
All forms of migration raise a complex and almost unresolvable competition between the rights of those wanting to enter and of those already here. Migration into the EU from third countries, though, raises the most profound questions, including of public spending. There are thousands of third country nationals hurling themselves at the UK from within the EU – the migrants who wait in Calais, for instance, for their chance to hide under a train or lorry, endangering their lives in the process.
And there are many, many more thousands who spend their fortunes to crowd into unseaworthy boats to attempt the crossing to Malta, Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries, in the hope of a better life in Europe. They drown, they end up in crowded migration centres, they are sent back to try their luck again.
This has an impact on lawyers, which cannot be dodged. For years, my own organisation, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), has debated whether to become involved in migration. To do so would impact on resources, and on our identity as an organisation that focuses mainly on professional regulatory matters. But the topic has gone higher and higher up the European agenda, and a few days ago we issued a declaration on migration, and guidelines for our member bars.
In relation to the role of lawyers, the declaration affirms ‘the entitlement of migrants to readily access courts and tribunals with the benefit of legal aid and legal representation in order to ensure the right to an effective remedy is guaranteed. It is the role and duty of lawyers providing services in the field of migration law to ensure that migrants’ rights and dignity are upheld.’ And it calls for ‘the provision of the necessary funds and resources by the governments of the member states and by the EU institutions to ensure that lawyers may provide their services in an effective manner to clients in the field of migration law. This includes but is not limited to the provision of funding for training in migration law as well as access to competent interpretation and translation facilities.’
The second document, the guidelines, calls on our member bars to set up migration law committees, to build up a sufficient number of migration lawyers, and to promote both training and the provision of legal aid. It recalls the right of migrant detainees to confidentiality, and to interpretation and translation facilities.
These are high-minded words, calling for resources. Our prime minister, in the style of the coalition government, spoke only about cutting public funds. I know that there are ghastly choices to be made on public spending. But intra-EU migrants are the easy group on whom to focus. They do not face the life-or-death choices often faced by those from outside the EU.
Let me summarise my own position in the manner of our customer services manager, using many of his own words: ‘People want grip. I get that. This is modern Europe. Migrants face legal difficulties. It’s very well-known. They need lawyers. And legal aid. Yes, these are radical reforms. But they are also reasonable and fair. We will do all of these things.’