Day in the life... A volunteer lawyer at RLS Athens

Reading a refugee client’s witness statement doesn’t convey the stark realities of their experience. For this barrister, volunteering at RLS Athens has been a life-changing event


As a barrister in London, I regularly represent vulnerable people who have made the long and arduous journey to the UK across Europe having passed through Greece. Reading a witness statement about a client’s past experiences sitting in chambers in London, however, cannot come close to conveying the reality of the challenges involved in such a journey. Coming to Athens underlines the stark reality facing refugees and the urgent nature of the emergency.

As a volunteer lawyer at Refugee Legal Support (RLS) Athens, each day is different and unpredictable. I wake up early, review the schedule for the day then make my way to the clinic. RLS is hosted by SolidarityNow, a Greek NGO, in the Athens Solidarity Centre, which is next to Larissa Station (one of the main train stations in Athens).

On the way, I grab some fresh orange juice, Greek yoghurt and honey. On arrival at the clinic, I meet the coordinator, Efi, and confirm the day’s schedule. The schedule can be subject to change, as is usual when dealing with vulnerable client groups. Over the course of the day I have conferences with clients and spend time drafting representations. I rely on the clinic’s interpreters to communicate with clients.

I meet Z, a lone Afghan woman with mental health vulnerabilities. Z, a widow, has been a victim of gender-based violence in Athens. She has five dependent children, her husband having been involved with allied forces in Afghanistan. I advise her on her upcoming asylum interview (conducted in Greek and Pashto) and on the medical evidence that will be required and start to draft written representations on the country situation in Afghanistan in order to assist with her asylum claim. Being based in SolidarityNow has the advantage that RLS Athens clients can access additional support from in-house professionals such as social workers and psychologists. I check with Efi that Z has been referred for the relevant support which she requires.

I meet F, a Syrian man who is in Athens with his young child. He registered for asylum in Greece but is desperate to be with his older child who is in Switzerland. The family became separated en route to Europe. F is seeking family reunification so that his case can be dealt with by the Swiss authorities and I advise him on the evidence that he needs to collate in support of the ‘take charge request’. There is some time pressure as this request must be submitted to the Greek Asylum Service’s Dublin Unit within three months of the date when he registered for asylum in Greece. F is anxious and I spend time reassuring and encouraging him to pursue the legal route for reunification rather than an unlawful and dangerous one, despite the long delays and uncertainty involved.

I also advise R, an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan who is in Athens having fled from the Taliban who forcibly recruited him when he was 15 years old. He has no fixed abode in Athens and is vulnerable to exploitation. When I meet him, he has a visible wound as he was attacked a few days ago by another boy. He has not had medical treatment. He has an older brother with status in Germany and wants his case to be dealt with in Germany so that he can be with his brother. I speak to SolidarityNow about support that he can be offered and begin to prepare representations for a ‘take charge request’. I take the details of R’s brother and contact him directly about the German documents that will be required in support of the request.

I have a quick lunch during a casework meeting. Efi and Iliana, our Greek lawyer, go through the list of active cases and discuss case strategy and emerging trends. We share outcomes – an Afghan unaccompanied minor has been accepted for transfer to Germany to be with his adult sister (DNA evidence was provided) – and discuss how to approach a reconsideration request for another client. We note the backlog of cases at the Greek Asylum Service and that it is impossible to provide clients with a time estimate of how long they will have to wait. Iliana updates us on a conference on Dublin III in Thessaloniki where she met other legal actors working on the ground in Greece. We also discuss a vulnerable client who has been referred to RLS Athens by a refugee support group. I outline what I am planning to do with the clients I will be seeing for the rest of the week. We plan to make a referral to a German NGO regarding a complex family reunification case where the German authorities have twice rejected a transfer request and the Greek Dublin Unit has decided that no further reconsideration request will be sent. The German NGO will need to consider whether litigation in Germany is appropriate.

The rest of the day is spent progressing cases and drafting representations. It is then time to leave the clinic and meet with a refugee support group to deliver a presentation (with interpreters) about family reunification procedures. We try regularly to work collaboratively with other organisations to build capacity and spread knowledge about the legal options available.

By the time we finish, it is late. There is just enough time to deal with some emails to London before calling it a night. Tomorrow will be another very busy day!

Asma Nizami is a barrister at One Pump Court practising in immigration/asylum, Court of Protection and discrimination and education law.


About RLS Athens

Refugee Legal Support Athens was established in April 2017 by a group of UK asylum lawyers and volunteers. Asylum lawyers from the UK commit to volunteering for two weeks at a time. In Athens, we employ a project coordinator, a Greek lawyer and interpreters from the Greek refugee community. In 2018, the Executive Committee of RLS Athens was awarded the LexisNexis Pro Bono Award.

The core of the work we do involves providing free legal support to refugees in and around Athens by preparing them for asylum interviews and assisting with family reunification applications for separated families under the Dublin III (Regulation No. 604/2013).

We receive referrals from the Greek NGO, SolidarityNow and other organisations working in Athens and the island hotspots.

There is a legal advice deficit for refugees in Athens. We rely on donations to cover our running costs and if RLS had the capacity, we would be taking on more cases. You can donate at: https://www.justgiving.com/refugeelegalsupport

To find out about volunteering, or to get involved in any other capacity, please see: www.refugeelegalsupport.org



They ask me ‘How did you get here?’ Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land…  From Conversations About Home (at the deportation centre) – a poem by Warsan Shire


According to UNHCR, 50,500 refugees arrived in Greece in 2018 – an increase of 45% since 2017. 8,604 people sought asylum in Greece this year, as of 7 April 2019. Refugees in Athens have either been transferred from the Greek islands or have left island detention without permission. They face destitution, difficult living conditions and lengthy delays. It is not uncommon to see unaccompanied children sleeping on the streets in Athens and of course, they are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

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Asma Nizami

Asma Nizami is a barrister at One Pump Court practising in immigration/asylum, Court of Protection and discrimination and education law.