The research Asylos produces helps give asylum seekers a credible voice in the courtroom. But if country of origin information research is the engine of dignity, the arguments are its fuel. The lawyers who work with Asylos use precise and nimble arguments to defend the rights of refugees.

by Daniel Buchman

Emeni Souayah has defended the rights of those seeking refuge in Belgium for almost 10 years. Her work often requires educating Belgian authorities on how cultural norms shape asylum seekers’ experiences of persecution. When lawyers like Emeni work with Asylos, we leverage our linguistic and regional expertise to take time-intensive research off their plate, so they have time to develop arguments, counsel clients and defend their rights in court.

Rovena's story

Recently, Emeni represented a woman and mother of two from Serbia. Rovena*, an ethnic Albanian, was trapped in a forced marriage and suffering from domestic psychological and physical abuse. Custom in Albanian communities in Serbia dictates that in cases of divorce the father gets custody of the children, so Rovena couldn’t divorce her husband without leaving her children behind. Despite constant psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and the risk of losing her children, Rovena’s application for asylum had been denied several times and she was met with resistance at every turn.

She needed documents, references, interviews, among other evidence, just to get them to pay attention.

The many roles of an asylum lawyer

The difficulties Rovena encountered whilst trying to claim asylum, and Emeni's effortsto help her, are characteristic of those many asylum seekers face. Rovena’s history of abuse left her deeply uncomfortable in men's presence but despite Emeni’s insistence that Rovena needed a female interviewer, the Belgian authorities put a man in the interview room—twice. When the interview finally happened, the authorities sent information regarding the interviews to her home address, where she lived with her husband, putting both her and her children at significant risk. It fell to Emeni to help Rovena work through her anxiety while educating authorities on the cultural and psychological components of abuse.

Emeni’s mind, time, and budget are stretched over more cases than we could count. In each case, Emeni plays the role of lawyer, counsellor, researcher, and educator. For Rovena’s case, Emeni spent time and energy proving to Belgian authorities that Albanian customs around domestic violence differ by region, community, and even family. She needed documents, references, interviews, among other evidence, just to get them to pay attention. This is not uncommon. Across Europe and North America, authorities cast doubt on asylum seekers’ testimonies. In cases involving victims of abuse, they ask to see scars, and in those involving gay claimants, they ask for proof of ex-lovers. Emeni eventually succeeded in arguing for Rovena’s right to live in Belgium as a refugee, but countless similar stories do not end so positively. Last year, only 37% of asylum applications in Europe came back with a positive decision at the first instance.

When an Asylos report is put in front of the authorities, they may see parts of the case they had previously overlooked.

A way forward

Asylos brings evidence into the asylum process for cases like Emeni and Rovena’s by diligently working on comprehensive, well-researched, dependable reports that give lawyers like Emeni back their time and asylum seekers like Rovena back their dignity.

In governments across Europe, overworked decision-makers have to sift through hundreds of applications a day, leaving little room for nuance. When an Asylos report is put in front of them, they may see parts of the case they had previously overlooked. They may see another element of persecution backed up by hard evidence they had previously neglected.

Our network of volunteers provides life-changing information without which many cases do not stand a chance. Information forces those with a lot of power and little time to scrutinise their decisions. It pushes every asylum proceeding towards an evidence-based procedure.

*Name changed