With a goal that every refugee would have access to a lawyer, the global legal community committed this week to 125,000 pro bono hours for refugee legal aid, in an extraordinary collaborative pledge unveiled at the Global Refugee Forum.

The joint pledge involves 50 civil society actors and 27 law firms, bar associations and corporations across the world. It is the culmination of a global mobilisation led by the Kaldor Centre’s Brian Barbour, together with Julia Mayerhofer, Co-Director of the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet). In recognition of the potential impact of the pledge, Mayerhofer was invited to announce it during the Forum’s opening session, alongside the welcoming remarks of the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi; the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres; and Heads of State and Ministers from Costa Rica, Pakistan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and Germany.

A core group collaborated to bring partners onto the pledge, including: Act for Peace, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, Asylum Access, the Danish Refugee Council, the FJSS Group, the Kaldor Center, and Refugee Legal.

The pledge emphasises partnering between lawyers, law firms, bar associations, NGOs and others locally, as well as across borders regionally and globally. Entitled ‘Mobilizing the Global Legal Community to Protect and Find Solutions for Refugees and Others Forcibly Displaced’, the pledge launches a movement. An open invitation is issued to the legal community to add a contribution. 

Barbour and Mayerhofer said the role of the global legal community is critical to fostering the values of justice and equality before the law, and specifically to operationalising protection and finding solutions for refugees. 

‘Legal aid contributes to government capacity, efficiency, fairness, adaptability, and integrity, as well as to the overall rule of law,’ Barbour said. ‘For refugees, basic humanitarian needs are critical, but those basic needs will continue without end until and unless a solution can be found to their predicament. That solution will always be found through the law.’

The legal profession embraces a pro bono and legal aid ethic, as a fundamental part of what it means to be a lawyer. Through high-quality pro bono and legal aid work, lawyers provide access to justice for segments of society that may otherwise be unable to access it, achieving justice for those they assist, and for society more broadly. Pro bono legal aid in refugee cases serves to protect individuals and achieve solutions both for the person and for the State.

There are currently more than 25.9 million refugees and more than 70.8 million displaced persons across the globe. Despite the magnitude of the needs, refugees suffer from a dearth of solutions and deteriorating political will. Refugee protection is increasingly being reconstructed as a political issue, with political actors taking advantage of the vulnerability of refugees, and inciting xenophobia and nationalism for the sake of electoral gains. Politicians presume that there will be few political consequences for doing so. But the consequences for refugees are severe when they are made increasingly vulnerable to religious, ethnic, or refugee status-based discrimination.  

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany asked during the opening plenary session, ‘Is there a global refugee crisis, or is global solidarity in crisis?’

In this context, as the international community convened for the first ever Global Refugee Forum, the aim was to advance the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees by mobilising political will, broadening the base of support, and implementing arrangements that facilitate more equitable, sustained, and predictable responsibility-sharing. 

States and other stakeholders were invited to announce concrete pledges and contributions that will achieve tangible benefits for both refugees and host communities.

The Kaldor Centre’s commitment includes research and support for policy-making, emerging scholars with lived experience and empowering refugees through access to educational opportunities.

The legal community pledge was first revealed on 16 December in a pre-Forum spotlight session in Geneva, showcasing existing pro bono and legal empowerment projects and partnerships. Participants discussed how pro bono can be expanded so that more refugees can benefit from its potential impact. Presentations on collaboration and partnership were given by Mahamat Ibrahim Sallet, a refugee youth delegate and President of Living Together; Analia Cascone, Defensor General de la Nacion of the Government of Argentina; Cecilia Vejby Andersen, Danish Refugee Council; David Manne, Refugee Legal; Naiyana Thanawattho, Asylum Access Thailand; and Ms. Awmaima Amrayaf of DLA Piper.

Among the other sessions was the launch of a Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network; the launch of a new Asylum Capacity Support Group Mechanism; a high-level event on the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS, by its acronym in Spanish); and on the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees Support Platform.