A week in the life of a European Lawyers in Lesvos Volunteer Lawyer
I arrive in Mytilene International Airport at 9pm from Athens. I have read over the preparatory materials sent by the managing director and legal coordinator about my role and how the project works before my arrival so I’m ready to hit the ground running tomorrow.
After the short taxi from the airport to the volunteer house I meet the other volunteers briefly before going to bed. I feel a little nervous but I’m excited to see how I can help as an ELIL volunteer.
Day one started off with an induction by Chrysoula the legal director and Phil the managing director. Chrysoula outlines the Greek asylum procedure and provides me with the useful ‘ELIL Interview Preparation Guide’ to use when preparing asylum seekers for interviews and advising on family reunification claims. Phil explains the background to the project, daily work in the camp in Moria just outside Mytilene and practical advice about the volunteer house and getting around Mytilene. I also meet the finance manager Theo who explains I will receive a per diem of 20 euro per day and how I should expense any taxi fares or bus tickets to the camp. I’m given my ELIL phone and ELIL jacket and head to the camp to shadow another one of the ELIL volunteer lawyers for the day.
I go to ELIL’s container in the camp and watch how the organisation works. Legal assistants assist people who drop in and also register new cases. Lawyers attend scheduled interview preparation sessions with asylum seekers who have their interviews coming up. The Farsi and Arabic interpreters are always in very high demand given the volume of asylum seekers who only speak those languages.
I get my case list today which is a large excel spreadsheet of my cases for the time I am here. I’m impressed as I can see how the system of updating case lists weekly makes the handover of cases from volunteer lawyer to volunteer lawyer seamless. I’m taking over many of the cases from a lawyer who left last week. I have a combination of family reunification cases and interview preparations. The case list helpfully lists all of the relevant registration details, and any additional notes (e.g. if the person dropped in to the container to update their documents following a medical assessment or to let us know about a new date of interview). I’m very grateful for this as it gives me a very up to date snapshot of what is going on in each of my cases before I meet them.
I call a number of the people on my case list and schedule interview preparation with them, either in the camp container or the ELIL office in Mytilene. My cases are mostly from Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
I have 2 preparations at the camp today. The volunteers drive to the camp in two rented cars every morning.
One preparation is in Arabic so I use the fantastic Arabic interpreter Sali and another in English which I do alone. Each lasts over three hours, which is much longer than I expected and longer than I would normally need to prepare clients back home. I think this is probably due to the complexity of the cases and the trauma they have been through.
I hear the harrowing story of a woman who was the victim of sexual gender based violence (‘SGBV’). Despite this, she is not classed as highly vulnerable so I prepare her for the questions she will be asked and emphasise the importance of her explaining, in detail, from beginning to end her reasons for fleeing and why it would be unsafe for her to return to her country. It is a difficult process, as she is only 21 and finds it difficult to talk about her experiences. I have to explain that her best chance of being granted international protection is if she tells her story completely. I reassure her that she can request a female interpreter and interviewer if she is not comfortable explaining her story to a male. I give her the ELIL template letter to request her interview transcript and ask her to bring the transcript back to me once she receives it so we can review it together.
I have my first family reunification case today and I am shocked at how unaware my client is about his right to be reunified with his wife, who is legally resident in Germany. I explain the reunification procedure and go through his documents with him. I consider he has a very strong case. We schedule an appointment to follow up once he has submitted all of his documents to the Greek Asylum Service, to ensure that he is able to move forward with reunification application as quickly as possible.
After a long day and many other preparations, I draft my daily case update and send it to Phil and Chrysoula. My notes will go into the excel spreadsheet case list which is updated daily and which Phil and Chrysoula review weekly to determine the ‘next steps’ for each case.
Hungry from a long day, a few of the volunteers go to one of the many Greek ‘taverne’ in Mytilene for dinner. For just 8 euro each we are served with a host of Greek dishes and it’s a very nice way to unwind after an intense day at the camp. Feta cheese has never tasted so good!
Feeling more settled, I go for an early morning run around Mytilene harbour. It’s amazing seeing the Frontex ships from various EU countries who patrol the mere 9km between Turkey and Lesvos. Just before returning to the volunteer house, I see a ship pull into the harbour carrying around 50 asylum seekers, many with children, who were picked up overnight.
I’m definitely in the swing of things now. I have my case list and have scheduled appointments and follow up with my cases. What was initially a little daunting is now much easier. I even take on urgent preparations for people who come to us for the first time the day before their interview. I register their details on the spot and do an interview preparation with them. I’ve never experienced such ‘hands on emergency’ legal assistance in my practice but I’m really happy to be able to help.
I discover that this Saturday is a non-working Saturday. Usually the team works every other Saturday. The other volunteers and I decide to visit the large fort in Mytilene and have a very relaxing day. After another delicious Greek meal. I go to bed refreshed and ready for another week as an ELIL volunteer.
All photos: Cord Brügmann/ELIL