This February, the School of Law at Queen Mary University in East London held two open days which aimed to provide refugees and asylum seekers with valuable information and advice about accessing legal aid, their options for higher education and getting qualifications from overseas recognised. They began planning for their own Refugee Week back in September 2015 and realised that within the department they had many useful contacts and a wealth of knowledge which could be beneficial to people seeking sanctuary. They contacted local refugee support groups (such as the Refugee Council and Migrant Rights Network), ethnic minority communities, mosques and individuals to publicise the events and offered to pay the expenses of people who wanted to attend as this was acknowledged to be a potential barrier.
Accessing sound legal advice can be difficult and the asylum process itself is very confusing. As such, the afternoon of information from different law firms, QMU’s legal advice centre and NGO’s was extremely useful and touched on subjects such as family reunification, the asylum system and appeals. The attendees then had the opportunity to speak one-to-one to many of the contributors. After a lunch, the programme surrounding access to education included speakers from the Refugee Support Network, QMU’s own counselling service, SOAS Student Union and STAR (Student Action for Refugees). This was followed by a session focusing on recognition of qualifications and careers advice; the session gave general information as well as focusing on a couple of key career paths such as medicine.
A total of around 60 people were able to access this information through the Open Days and the feedback has been positive. Niovi Vavoula, who is just finishing her Ph.D. and works as a research assistant in the School of Law, was responsible for much of the organisation for the events and was pleased with how successful the open days were. She highlighted the need to be proactive in making contacts with good quality speakers but said that many people were happy to help out. This is a brilliant example of how a whole university department, both staff and students, can utilise their expertise and experience to provide a useful, relevant service for those seeking sanctuary.