Legal Representation for Refugees in Argentina

By Sabrina Vecchioni

Granting protection for refugees is a historical and current issue that concerns individual states and the broader international community. In the last two decades, the global displaced population has grown from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016, due to armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan. Natural disasters and extreme poverty also contribute to the forced displacement of people in what the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees calls ‘mixed migratory flows.’

In some countries, these massive population movements are seen as matters of internal security.  However, in Argentina, they are understood as an obligation to provide legal and social assistance to every person who seeks the international protection of the State, following the provisions of the General Law of Recognition and Protection to Refugees.

In Europe and Australia, these services are provided by non-governmental organizations, are supported through State resources, and are narrowly focused on assisting asylum seekers who enter the country with a visa. However, the Argentinean government has prioritized international obligations based on of the International Convention of Refugees Status of 1951, the Additional Protocol of 1967 and theCartagena Declaration of 1984. In 2007, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense created a Commission that specializes in providing legal and social assistance to unaccompanied minors who enter the country.

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The Touma family (Taufic, 40, Ani Habad, 29, Kristel, 12, and Mari, 10) left Syria and settled in Cordoba, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Noticias Perfil.)

Furthermore, in 2011 with a Cooperation Agreement between the Argentina National Commission for Refugees, the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took a step forward in granting the right to legal defense by creating a special program that ensures free access to representation and social aid to every person who seeks asylum in Argentina. This program has been implemented throughout the provinces with the full cooperation of the regional offices of the Ministry.

Through this law, Argentina became the first country in the region to give full comprehensive access to defense for refugees and asylum seekers. More importantly, this service has no limitations: legal representation is granted starting the moment the foreigner communicates a request for international protection to any public authority figure, and continues through every stage of the administrative and judicial proceedings. Furthermore, the program authorizes lawyers to provide advice on migration and citizenship, regardless of the legal or criminal status of the individual.

It is also important to mention that the lawyers involved in the program work as public servants in a public institution and are selected after passing technical exams in English and French on International Refugee Law. This demonstrates Argentina’s commitment to providing a strong defense in accordance with the international and internal standards applicable to every proceeding – administrative or judicial. In recognition of this effort, the UNHCR gave a special mention to the work of the Program.

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Nowadays, protection should be seen as a given asylum seekers and refugees. The State should welcome them and is obliged to grant legal representation. This should not be seen as a secondary concern – rather, it is necessary to ensure that refugees can integrate successfully into society.

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Sabrina P. Vecchioni is an Attorney at the Assistance and Legal Representation Program for Refugees and Asylum Seekers of the Argentinean Ministry of Public Defense. Professor of International Public Law and International Humanitarian Law at the University of Buenos Aires.

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