by Dick Oosting

Dick Oosting is the Chair of the Board of Asylos. An international lawyer by education, Dick worked a lifetime in human rights, with leading positions in Amnesty International and other organisations, and has been engaged in key EU and domestic issues like asylum, immigration and child protection.

The following remarks were delivered at the opening of Asylos' digital Anniversary Conference on 14th and 15th November 2020.

The first ten years

Asylos is all about wanting to make a difference in a direct, practical manner. That was what spurred Thomas Klau and Ellen Riotte ten years ago to start this intriguing new venture. We were colleagues at the time at the European Council on Foreign Relations, they ran the Paris office and wanted to do something more concrete in their spare time than pursuing the elusive idea of European foreign policy.

They were triggered by seeing from up close the inequities of the French system for asylum seekers who were lost without evidence to back up their claims. They came up with this idea of online research into country-of-origin information, and started with a group of friends, without any money. It was conceived as an entirely voluntary effort, based on the principle of “people working for people” – reminiscent in its simplicity of the founding idea of Amnesty International 50 years earlier for the defence of human rights, but fit for the digital age.

Initially without a particular plan, it struck a chord for a quickly growing number of young people to join in. Which in turn gave the impetus to make this unorthodox COI service more widely available, in Europe and even beyond, to support effective legal aid for which there was an evident need given what Nick Witney in his recent blog called the “shameful gap between the declared policies of European governments and how the asylum systems operate in practice”. In all these years that gap has remained: the 2015 refugee crisis has shifted Europe’s policies to new levels of shame with the humanitarian disaster of Greek camps and the political obstruction of EU governments to equitable burden-sharing.

The fundament created in Paris ten years ago, and the evident effectiveness of Asylos’s reports, in due course started to generate financial support. Though modest, that funding enabled Asylos to transform itself into a professional operation in terms of quality and reliability, and consistent impact, without losing that extraordinary voluntary ethos that is the hallmark of Asylos. The organisation went through the typical phases of a start-up, including in a change of guard nearly four years ago when Sophie Kloos took over as director. At the same time the board was renewed and expanded, including a strong representation of the volunteer network.

And all the time the people keep coming, fleeing persecution and seeking protection – and needing the kind of help that Asylos offers.

Where are we now, and what is the future perspective?

The organisation has settled well into a steady-state operation with a network of some 100 volunteers, supported by a small staff, and producing an output that is exceptionally cost-effective:

  • individual reports remain the bedrock;
  • these are now complemented by strategic reports on specific groups of refugees;
  • and as a crucial third stream, training is offered not only to our own volunteers but also to asylum practitioners, with a considerable multiplier effect.

In other words, Asylos has come of age, as an organisation that has successfully integrated professionalism with voluntary engagement – and there is absolutely no contradiction between the two!

This success story underlines the two perennial challenges:

  • how to reach and help more people who need protection
  • how to raise the necessary funds?

The two are very much linked: if you do not have a clear idea as to how you want to achieve and build on your primary goals, it will be that much more difficult to get funding. So how do we take Asylos forward?

The idea of Asylos and its basic set-up may look simple, but that is deceptive – ten years of experience throws up perennial old questions as well as new challenges, such as:

  • how to become more proactive in order to meet the greatest need, where now we essentially respond to lawyers who know how to find us?
  • should we prioritise countries with the highest barriers against asylum seekers, and countries with ‘legal aid deserts’?
  • how can we tailor our reports to have maximum impact in specific contexts of national law and practice?
  • what can be done to multiply the impact of our reports beyond the individual cases?
  • how to move outside the English- and French-speaking environments?
  • how can a voluntary network grow and yet be kept manageable and sustainable – and motivated?
  • being a research- rather than a campaigning organisation, with whom do we partner to help turn our individual case work into advocacy to change policy?
  • how can we engage more structurally with the legal profession on COI gaps, and on training lawyers?
  • how do we really gauge impact and effectiveness?

These and other questions present us with a need to develop strategy beyond the obvious goal of “doing more, better”. We are currently working to chart a clear, compelling strategic course that allows Asylos to meet these challenges and find the necessary resources, while remaining true to its basic principles of helping individuals find protection through voluntary engagement.

In doing so, there is one more crucial element that we must pay close attention to: Asylos’s people – the staff, the coordinators and the volunteers at large. For the staff, and to some extent the coordinators, it will be important to provide a perspective on their roles and workloads that recognises and pushes back on the kind of chronic overload that is all too common in organisations like ours. We cannot take them for granted!

For the volunteers, it will be important to provide not only the training and the practical facilities necessary for effective, high-quality research, but also to enable the kind of social interaction, mutual support and plain fun that are indispensable to sustain intrinsic motivation.

Which brings us to this ‘birthday party’: it has been too long since we were able to hold the annual all-Asylos conference that is such an important part of Asylos’s life blood – the last time in 2018 in London, was a wonderful occasion. This anniversary conference, forced online by Covid-19, can only be a meagre substitute for meeting each other in person, and in larger numbers. But we hope that it will nonetheless help us to cement our commitment and to reinforce a common perspective on making Asylos live and grow.

We are ready for the next ten years of providing life-saving research, but only your involvement can help us grow. Find out how you can contribute to fairer asylum decisions by joining our network of fundraisers today. 

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