By Alexandra Dufresne

Alexandra Dufresne is an Asylos trustee and an American lawyer specialising in refugee, immigration, and child law and policy. She taught seminars in law and policy at Yale from 2006-2015 and currently teaches law at several Swiss institutions of higher learning.

How to harness the power of our network to provide the highest possible quality country-of-origin Information (COI) to vulnerable asylum seekers around the world?

In Brussels this past weekend, Asylos volunteers from Bulgaria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- including Team Coordinators, a researcher, and a Member of the Board of Trustees -- met with staff and expert consultants in an intense two-day conference and workshop, made possible by the generous funding of the European Programme for Integration and Migration (Epim). This annual Asylos Coordination Meeting is one of the highlights of our year and crucial to our success. 

The driving question of this year’s meeting was: How do we harness the power of Asylos’s extensive volunteer network to provide the highest possible quality country-of-origin information (COI) to vulnerable asylum seekers around the world?

Asylos’ unique structure is both a challenge and an opportunity. Unlike many refugee rights organizations, Asylos is powered almost entirely by volunteers. 11 regional Team Coordinators, an Advisory Committee, a Board of Trustees, and 90 volunteer researchers work together to provide COI pro bono to vulnerable asylum seekers and counsel in many diverse legal systems. This work is facilitated by only two full-time staff members, aided by two part-time expert consultants.

Asylos volunteers come from all over the world and reside throughout Europe and beyond. Almost all volunteers have full-time positions outside of Asylos, many of which are in academia, direct refugee services, government, or civil society organizations and NGOs. As a result, they bring to their volunteer work a wide diversity of expertise in languages, human rights research, law and policy. They work together and share knowledge online, through a host of online tools and regular meetings via video call. But given their geographic diversity, most volunteers never -- or only rarely -- have the opportunity to meet face-to-face. 

    

The desire to roll up our sleeves and dig into our joint work was palpable

For this reason, the yearly Asylos Coordination Meeting is extremely intense. Team Coordinators -- many of whom have volunteered with Asylos for 3-8 years -- were certainly happy to see one another, but the desire to roll up our sleeves and dig into our joint work was palpable. Together, we analyzed and discussed key questions inherent in our work: 

  • How do we make sure we capture, utilize, and maintain the skill-based and subject matter expertise of our volunteers?  
  • How do we minimize the risk of a “leaky pipeline” - - that is, the risk that valuable information or expertise will be lost when communicated across a large, geographically-dispersed volunteer network?
  • How do we make sure our COI reports are consistently of the highest possible quality?
  • How do we make sure that our COI reports are well-adapted to the particular legal system in which the asylum seeker is presenting his or her claim?
  • How do we work efficiently and effectively with lawyers, given severe time pressures on volunteer researchers and asylum counsel alike?
  • How do we make sure our volunteers feel connected to and supported by the network and continue to stay committed to our work, even in the face of other demands on their time?   
  • How can different parts of Asylos work best together to ensure the highest work quality possible? In other words, how do we make sure that Asylos is far more than the sum of its parts?

We hammered away at these questions for two days. We discussed the results of expert reviews of our work that identified our strengths and weaknesses. We shared dilemmas and concerns and strategized about how to solve challenges -- both large and small -- that we frequently encounter. We brought to the discussion extensive research, communications, operations, management, legal and strategic expertise from other areas of our professional careers, as well as insights about the justice systems for asylum seekers in our own countries. Because we were all at the same table for two weekend days without distraction or competing demands on our time, we had the opportunity to dig deep into these questions and build consensus. 

     

When given the choice between enjoying a good show on Netflix with a glass of wine, and sitting at our laptops putting on the final touches to a research report  -- why do we choose the latter?

We also had the opportunity to reaffirm why Asylos is so important to us, and why -- when given the choice after work between enjoying a good show on Netflix with a glass of wine, and sitting at our laptops putting on the final touches to a research report  -- we choose the latter. We discovered that we all chose to volunteer with Asylos for similar reasons: the desire to use our education and skills in a concrete, tangible way to help individual asylum seekers access justice, and the desire to build a network and community of like-minded volunteer researchers across the world, who are united in this goal. We shared success stories -- the times tribunals cited our reports as the deciding factor in a positive decision, the times counsel told us that a small human rights detail tracked down by an Asylos volunteer made all the difference -- and reaffirmed that these small successes drive our desire to stay committed to this volunteer work.

A civil society organization driven by the labor of volunteers cannot survive for long as a “top-down” enterprise. Rather, it has to recognize -- and harness -- the power of its diverse network of people. The opportunity to meet and strategize in person is crucial to the sustainability of our network and to reaffirming our bonds to each other.  

For this reason, we are very grateful to Epim’s generous funding of this conference. We are also looking forward to fundraising for a network-wide meeting of volunteer researchers in Summer 2020, to celebrate our 10th Anniversary. Volunteer researchers are the lifeblood of our network, but to build and strengthen our work, there is no substitute to having the opportunity to meet face-to-face. 


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