Posted by: nabilabuhary | May 10, 2012

Final Report: Human Rights First

Human Rights First: New York City, US

Report by Nabila Buhary

I started my internship at Human Rights First (HRF) in New York in November 2011. I really enjoyed my time at HRF and I would describe it as a rewarding experience. I learnt a lot, gained valuable skills and international experience in refugee law, met interesting people and made contacts and friends I know I will keep for years to come.

I did not really know what to expect from this internship, but I had some idea of what I wanted to gain. I wanted to be able to compare and contrast U.S. asylum law with Australia’s application of the Refugee Convention, as well as gain an insight into how the U.S. upheld its international obligations. At the time I applied for this internship the ‘Malaysia Solution’ had been placed under an injunction by the High Court. I have always felt that Australian politics delineates refugees as a problem to be dealt with, rather than people who have been involuntarily displaced. I felt that working at a non-profit organisation based in the U.S., arguably the most powerful and influential country in the world, would provide an insight into how effective civil society could be.

The first few days at HRF involved familiarising myself with U.S. asylum law. I worked predominantly with the Refugee Protection Program (RPP). Within the first week I had a chance to work directly with a client. The RPP has a pro bono program that offers free legal advice to people who have entered the U.S., are seeking asylum and are unable to afford legal representation. The client has an initial interview with the RPP in which they present their claim. This interview usually lasts about 3 hours, although it depends on whether the client speaks English and how complicated their case is. The longest intake interview I had was about 4 hours. During this interview the client is encouraged to be completely transparent about their life story and their asylum claim, the purpose being to determine whether the events of their life fit the definition under Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention. My role involved interviewing clients and drafting their claim in order to assess whether they would be successful. These write-ups would take a few days, and involved research into country conditions and asylum law. If the client had a strong claim, they were placed with a firm who was willing to take on the case for free.

I had worked with asylum seekers in Melbourne before. However, I was unfamiliar with the political situation in many of the countries that HRF clients had left. Many asylum seekers that entered Australia originated from countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. The clients in New York were from a broader range of countries from regions such as South America, the Middle East, North Africa and West Africa. At HRF, I worked with clients who had political or religious claims, and on occasion, claims based on the client being a member of a particular social group. Most of my time at HRF was dedicated to client intakes, however HRF is a relatively large organisation and the RPP did place an emphasis on policy issues and advocacy. Such issues included detention centre reform, asylum law reform, the one-year filing deadline, and publicising the pro bono program. I worked on ongoing projects with many members of the RPP team, in both the New York and Washington Office.

HRF is a respected organisation with specialised departments, each staffed with experienced ‘human rights defenders,’ as they’re called. The wealth of knowledge in this organisation amazed me. On a weekly basis I was able to attend UN events, screenings and public lectures. All of this was made available to HRF employees and luckily, because I was an intern, I was also able to attend. The first movie premiere I attended concerned the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. I attended an event during Holocaust Memorial Week at the UN Headquarters in New York, as well as a book launch highlighting the positive aspects of U.S. immigration. The intellectual and cultural stimulation in this city was endless.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience, and the one that has cemented refugee law as my future career choice, was seeing a HRF client granted asylum. I attended many court hearings at the New York Immigration Court.  I can still remember the combination of happiness, relief and joy on the client’s face when the judge told him that he had been granted asylum. He was elated and so incredibly grateful. Later, his attorney told me that this was the most rewarding experience of her career.

As a result of my internship at HRF I have a better understanding of refugee law. I feel that my time at HRF has complemented the progression of my degree and I hope the knowledge and experience gained will allow me to pursue a career in refugee and human rights law.

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