Refugees reunited with their families through project run by uni law school

Refugee Legal Aid Project
Refugee Legal Aid Project

A young woman from Zimbabwe was one of six refugees reunited with their families thanks to an initiative run by the University of Bedfordshire Law School.

Forced to flee her country due to continuous death threats as a result of her political activity, the woman had to leave her three children behind.

With help from the university’s Refugee Legal Aid Project (RLAP), her children were granted visas and have joined her in the UK.

The project, headed by Dr Silvia Borelli, provides free assistance to refugees who are seeking to be reunited in the UK with their close family members who remain abroad. Law students, acting under supervision, assist refugees in preparing applications to UK Visas and Immigration. Recent cuts to legal aid have meant that publicly funded legal assistance is not available for applications of this type.

The programme is run in conjunction with Bedfordshire Refugee & Asylum Seeker Support (BRASS), with the support and assistance of Fiona Cameron of the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum and Ashahul Ali, a barrister at Duncan Lewis Solicitors. Both are Visiting Fellows at the University’s Centre for Research in Law (CRiL).

Dr Borelli, Principal Lecturer in Law, said: “The project is of great value, both to the refugees and for the students who take part.

“The rules and application process are complex, and, given the unavailability of legal aid, many of our clients would face significant obstacles in making successful applications unassisted.

“In addition, the project greatly benefits the students who participate: they gain new knowledge and skill sets, as well as vital practical experience which will make them very attractive to potential future employers.”

RLAP began in November 2013, and in its first year had a 100% success rate in obtaining the reunion of its clients with close family members. Continuing into its second year, the project is set to expand its activities, with the cases of seven refugees already pending. Applicants come from across the world, from places such as Uganda, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The case of A, a young refugee from a war-torn country in Asia, is particularly striking. Following the death of their father and the suspicious disappearance of their mother, A’s siblings have been left alone in one of the most dangerous areas in the world. RLAP is working closely with A in the hope that they will be granted entry visas so that the family can be reunited.

This year, seven Law undergraduates, the majority of whom are in their third year, are involved in the project. They are assisted by last year’s cohort, who have now graduated and returned to act as mentors. All RLAP volunteers have received training from the University in interviewing, as well as attending preparatory induction sessions on confidentiality issues and the relevant procedure and legal principles given by qualified practitioners and refugee workers.

Taranjit Kaur, a student on the programme last year, said: “Through this project, not only have I been able to develop my own legal skills, but also provide positive outcomes for clients. I have gained invaluable work experience and also made new friends through the project.”

In addition to benefitting students, RLAP has changed the lives of the refugees which the project assists, all of whom have since contacted the department to show their gratitude.

Sarmin Begum, who was also involved, said: “It was exciting to hear back from clients when their applications had been successful, knowing that our hard work and dedication proved itself allowing families to be that one step closer to reuniting.”