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Barbara Harrell-Bond gives refugees what they say they need most – legal aid

The tiny Fahamu Refugee Programme has an ambitious goal: provide lawyers and advocates around the world with the legal resources they need to win a refugee's case.

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Barbara Harrell-Bond has received the Order of the British Empire for her work.

Courtesy of Barbara Harrell-Bond

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Barbara Harrell-Bond dashes off an e-mail from England to her daughter in the United States. Would her daughter please call Vedaste Kazamarande, a refugee recently arrived in the US from Uganda?

Mr. Kazamarande, who is blind, had just been resettled in Abilene, Texas, a city where he knew no one. Through Dr. Harrell-Bond's efforts, Kazamarande had gained refugee status after fleeing war and persecution in Congo.

Harrell-Bond's daughter placed the call, found that he had the assistance of a local church, and then assured her that the new arrival had at least a few community resources.

It's all in a day's work for Harrell-Bond who, long past a typical retirement age, is hard at work in her apartment in Oxford, England. It's crowded with papers, laptops, and student interns providing the thing that refugees tell her they most need – legal aid.

In 2009 she founded the Fahamu Refugee Programme. It now has one paid employee, her codirector Themba Lewis. Its goal is ambitious: to create a global clearinghouse of information so that lawyers and advocates – across borders and cultures – can find resources to support a refugee's case.

She constantly receives calls and e-mails with desperate pleas.

A Rwandan man hears her on a BBC World Service program and urgently seeks help. He is in China studying computer science, but his government insists that he come home to testify against a political opposition leader. He says the government wants him to give false testimony, and he refuses. Rwanda revokes his passport and he is left in limbo. Using Skype and e-mail, Harrell-Bond helps him prepare testimony to seek refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"I actually did his whole case," she says. "We have every reason to assume he would be locked up or killed."

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A woman in Britain worries that if she goes back to Sierra Leone she will not be able to protect her small daughters from genital mutilation. Harrell-Bond writes a 17-page statement about female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone to show the court that the woman's concerns are well founded.

A man in Angola is attacked and beaten, and then arrested by police for his political activity. After pressure from human rights groups, he is released but keeps receiving threats. He flees to Britain, but his appeal for asylum is denied. Harrell-Bond gathers information that shows his claim is valid.

People who must flee quickly often turn up without identification documents. They have no contacts and no cash. Nevertheless, they have to go through a strict legal process to make their case for refugee status.

Those without legal assistance find the deck stacked against them.

For example, in 2012, only 36 percent of the 70,400 people who came to the US and applied for asylum were successful, according to figures from the UNHCR. But those with lawyers had a much higher success rate. For example, 90 percent of asylum seekers represented by the pro bono lawyers group Human Rights First had a favorable ruling.

"It's a very unfair situation," says Sarah Ignatius, executive director of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project, a nonprofit group in Boston that provides legal aid. "Many more resources should be available to help asylum seekers since the stakes are so high. It makes a huge difference."

International law "acknowledges that refugees have the right to legal assistance, but it's too seldom available," Harrell-Bond says.

Lawyers and other advocates who work with refugees are often dispersed and isolated, says Mr. Lewis, Harrell-Bond's codirector. "They work across different languages, legal systems, and experiences." For example, Somalians might be seeking asylum in Thailand, Yemen, or Norway, where a lawyer may not know the situation in Somalia and the possible persecution there. Lawyers may not be familiar with case law in another country that relates to the problem. They may have few resources.

"We also work in a complicated area of law and against political opinion," Lewis adds.

On a Friday afternoon, the small kitchen-living room in Harrell-Bond's apartment is filled with a dozen people. She sits at a computer at the end of the kitchen counter. Lewis has a small desk in the corner. Interns, mostly law students, are scattered at two tables.

They are busy compiling information for the group's website, which includes a list of special issues that lawyers for refugees could face. The issues range from "apostasy" to "witchcraft."

A lawyer handling a case in which witchcraft is the reason for seeking asylum must know how to explain the threat to a court and show how it constitutes persecution. So a list of articles, experts on the subject, and knowledgeable lawyers is presented – as well as an explanation of places in the world where this occurs.

Under the heading "apostasy," the website provides resources for those persecuted for changing religions. The staff is currently working to gather and provide legal resources for those persecuted for their sexual or gender orientation as well.

For a while the only sounds are a clock ticking, papers shuffling, and keyboards clicking. Then Harrell-Bond suddenly speaks: She's received an e-mail asking if she knows anyone who can identify Congolese military uniforms. The e-mail is from a lawyer trying to help a client prove he was in the Congolese military. She fires off a helpful reply.

Her interns are hard at work, too. Violeta Barrera has unearthed a source of information on current attitudes toward Palestinians in Egypt. She flips through articles and printouts in a red loose-leaf notebook. A Palestinian is fighting deportation to Egypt, where he was born, and is seeking to show he would face persecution there.

"People will contact her from everywhere," Ms. Barrera says of Harrell-Bond. "They'll ask, 'Do you know anyone who can tell us about this?' And she will.... And the case will have a more positive outcome."

Part of the information Harrell-Bond is compiling is a network of contacts she has developed over the years. She's putting it all in a computerized database.

A native of South Dakota, Harrell-Bond attended what is now Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. She married a minister, moved to Los Angeles, and worked with Hungarian refugees through the National Council of Churches.

The couple eventually moved to England, where they divorced, and she, with three young children, sought to finish her education. She enrolled in the social anthropology program at the University of Oxford, graduated with distinction, and went on to gain a PhD in 1971.

She spent many years doing research in Sierra Leone and throughout West Africa, specializing in family and administrative law. In 1982, she founded the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Upon retirement, she pursued research in Kenya and Uganda, and ended up establishing the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. In her late 60s she began teaching at the American University in Cairo, establishing a legal assistance program there.

She's received many awards for her work, including the Order of the British Empire.

Harrell-Bond's approach is fierce and scholarly. She has been critical of the UNHCR. Her book "Imposing Aid" argues, among other things, that the industry of aid sometimes benefits the helpers more than the refugees.

But she is dogged in her commitment to refugees. "Barbara is fundamentally, unyieldingly dedicated to the concept of refugee protection and respect for refugees," Lewis says.

Kazamarande is one of them. His claim for refugee status was initially denied by the UNHCR with no reason given. Harrell-Bond helped him appeal the decision.

"I consider her my savior," he says.

 

Help refugees

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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help refugees:

USA for UNHCR supports the work of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency that provides protection and assistance to those forced to flee their homes. Take action: Donate to USA for UNHCR.

Global Citizens Network promotes cross-cultural understanding through authentic immersion experiences. Take action: Volunteer in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal.

The GVN Foundation supports the charitable and educational work of local organizations worldwide. Take action: Volunteer in education and community outreach in Uganda.

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