By: Mahnoor Bari
Nearly a dozen law students spent a week at Eleonas, a government-run refugee camp supervised by the Greek Migration Ministry and worked with NGOs in Athens in February to see firsthand how international human rights law is applied in practice.
Ten Brunel students and an alumna raised donations and helped with food distribution, arts and crafts, dance sessions and English lessons at a family centre run by an NGO named Faros for women and children. Past donations from the first trip in December 2015 helped to buy beds at a newly setup centre for nearly 1,200 unaccompanied children.
Dr. Alexandra Xanthaki and the Brunel Law School began the project in 2015, taking five students at time from her Human Rights Law elective as a way for them to learn firsthand about the rights of refugees and international treaties. Apart from the practical experience, it has also made students more aware about the dire refugee crisis and inspired some to pursue careers in human rights law after graduating.
Brunel alumna Jemma Durham went on the first trip in December 2015 as a law student, and since then has acted as the team lead on two subsequent trips.
“[The trip] made me more passionate because I can see there are many rights and situations which need to be improved,” said Durham. “For many students, including myself, it has inspired our careers and our lives. Many students from the first trip are now working in jobs related to this field.”
During the week, students participated in a panel discussion consisting of academics, mayors, lawyers and charity managers to discuss legal issues. The discussion reviewed how the law has adapted and how the issue can be resolved, and students gave their feedback on the camp.
Stephen Robinson, in his final year of LLB Law, was affected by the strength and resilience of the people he met and the difficult decisions they faced.
“I learnt that what I read is not always what is," he said. "Having an opportunity to actually hear stories of what the refugees had been through has really provided me with more of a sense of purpose in the way that I apply myself to my studies.
“This experience has highlighted to me many of the problems with the international human rights system as well as the implementation of national law.”
“Working at the refugee camp, excluding the cold weather, was tough but great fun,” says Christiane Sungu. “The distribution of clothes at the camp was difficult at times, as the donated clothes tended to be second-hand and of not great condition. It was visible on some refugees' faces that they were not happy with what we had to give, but had no choice. The food distributed was edible on some days, and not so much on other days.”
Food at the camp consisted of portions bread, a ready-made hot meal and a small bag of Smarties per family, as well as “cake”. “’Cake’ was not in actual fact cake, but leftover croissants or doughnuts from breakfast,” according to Sungu.
Naiema Begum says the refugee crisis has to be seen up close to be understood. “It has really opened my eyes to the situation out there and I think that no-one will ever understand any part of it unless they experience it for themselves.
“The way it is portrayed on the media doesn't emphasis the journey that these people have been on just to find some safety within a country. It has emphasised my awareness of anything being able to happen - one minute you could be living comfortably and the next you could only have a few of your possessions but what really matters is that your family is there and altogether. It has also made me feel like those countries who really can afford to support and assist such vulnerable people, they are not doing enough.”
“Working here was incredible,” says Robinson, “and I am hoping to return for a longer period over the summer to volunteer and maybe do some cooking lessons for the unaccompanied minors!”