Posted by: ruvinileitan | April 26, 2014

Human Rights First: Day-to-day work at a preeminent human rights organisation

As one of the last Castan Centre Global Interns to set off this year, I am certainly no less enthralled about the opportunities offered by the Refugee Representation team at Human Rights First in New York.

For those of you who haven’t heard from previous interns, Refugee Representation at Human Rights First is based on providing free legal assistance to asylum seekers in need. Staff attorneys conduct short screening sessions and longer (3 hour!) intake interviews with potential clients, and then summarise their cases, complete with extensive research into country conditions to verify clients’ experiences. If a client’s case is strong enough, Human Rights First reaches out to an extensive network of lawyers who have volunteered to take on cases free of charge.

These pro bono lawyers are not immigration lawyers, with many hailing from the big New York commercial law firms, but with the guidance of Human Rights First lawyers, who oversee a multitude of cases, the program is able to offer support to the most clients possible.

To give you a little context, this is a vital lifeline for clients. Unlike the limited access to the judicial system often faced by asylum seekers in Australia, the United States has an extensive system of dedicated immigration courts, serviced by over 200 judges in 59 courts across the country. Immigration proceedings are incredibly complex (I should know, trying to wrap my head around them in a matter of weeks) but many refugees without law degrees continue to face this challenge alone.

If clients are lucky enough to find out about Human Rights First, perhaps from judges who send them to the ‘pro bono room’ for a screening at the New York Immigration Court, from our information sessions at detention centres, or even just by walking in the door at the Human Rights First office, they immediately gain a much greater chance of being granted asylum. A study found that around 74% of non-detained clients obtain favourable outcomes if they have representation, in comparison with only 13% of unrepresented clients, and if in detention, a mere 3% of clients are successful without a lawyer, whereas 18% are successful with representation.

So, as an introduction, I have no doubt that the work I’m doing here has worthwhile, tangible benefits. However, I want to leave you with one further reflection. As I sat down to write this post I was struck by the description of this blog – noting that we interns were working for ‘some of the world’s preeminent human rights organisations.’ It sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

While I don’t doubt that this is an apt description of Human Rights First, I have noticed that the staff here approach the task of defending human rights with great humility. They accept that there is valuable work to be done, and then they get straight to the business of doing it. Whether it be lobbying for the full disclosure of the Senate torture report or meeting with judges to improve the asylum process, it’s not fancy or glamorous, it’s just what needs to be done. So for anyone who wants to work in the field, Human Rights First has shown me that while you do celebrate successes, there’s not too much fanfare – you just do a job that needs doing.

I’ll update you soon about how that’s going!

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