On August 28-29, 2017, within the framework of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum “Legal Dialogue Programme”, three experts took part in the International Summer School “Future Lawyers: Essential Skills to Success” at the Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad. The summer school was held for the sixth time and consisted of a number of courses that aimed to develop practical and communicative skills of the law students. The school’s lecturers are professors from leading European, Russian and US universities. Over the course of ten days, students from different regions of Russia study intensively by attending interactive lectures and seminars as well as participating in various legal activities such as role playing, negotiation training, and so on.

At the initiative of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, this year was the first time when a block of seminars on international law and practical work with refugees and migrants was introduced to the school’s programme. According to Ekaterina Osipova, PhD in Law, director of the International Summer School, as well as director of the law clinic at the I. Kant BFU, “as a rule, there are no specialised courses on legal regulation of refugee status and skills required for work with them at the Russian universities. At the same time, refugees are in a poor financial state when bringing their legal needs to law clinics in the different regions of our country. Thus, we can see that it is necessary to familiarise students with the legal basis of refugee protection and to emphasise the need for lawyers in this field”. Experts from the EU-Russia Legal Dialogue Programme Christoph König, Alina Aflecailor, and Elena Burtina presented to the students a comprehensive overview of the international legal framework on refugee protection, the main skills of intercultural communication, as well as the legal basis of and institutions working on refugee protection in Russia, and the role of NGOs in work with refugees.

Christoph König (chairman and cofounder of the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, Germany) spoke extensively on the Geneva Convention and Protocols related to the status of refugees. He emphasised that even though more than 140 countries are parties to the Convention and the Protocols, and provisions of these international agreements have been reflected in the domestic law of many countries, in reality, there are many practical difficulties regarding the implementation of such law. In particular, Article 31, Clause 1 of the Convention has often been contravened. This stipulates that refugees should not face penalties for illegal entry or for staying in the country of refuge, if the refugees arrived directly from the territory where their life or freedom was threatened, and if they provide a satisfactory explanation for their illegal entry or stay.

When working with refugees or migrants, it is also important for the lawyer to be sensitive to intercultural differences. Alina Aflecailor (human rights educator and non-formal education trainer, Romania) showed in an interactive form the existence of stereotypes, which can lead to intercultural misunderstanding and difficulties when it comes to refugee rights. Using the iceberg image, Alina vividly demonstrated how, based on a small visible part, we often jump to conclusions about people and the reasons for their behaviour. Thus, when working with people from different countries and cultures, it is vital to take into account the invisible part of the “iceberg” and avoid stereotypes. Respect, tolerance, the ability to pose open questions and to listen are also among the key skills for work with refugees and migrants.

The topic of the asylum system in Russia was presented to the students by Elena Burtina (expert of the Civic Assistance Committee, Russia). In Russia, there are both a legal framework – as Russia is a party to the Convention and Protocols and has passed the federal law “On refugees” – and institutions for providing protection to refugees within the country’s territory, such as the Federal Migration Service, its local branches and temporary accommodation centers for refugees and internally displaced persons. Nevertheless, according to the expert, the asylum system in the Russian Federation is mainly of a “decorative nature”. Statistical data shows that very few people can actually get refugee status in Russia. Among the reasons for the Russian asylum system’s inefficiency, Elena Burtina particularly stressed the extreme difficulties faced when applying for refugee status or temporary accommodation, cases of illegal denial of asylum, as well as abuse of the asylum decisions appeal procedure. Thus, peculiarity of the asylum system in Russia lies in the fact that decisions are not made based on the law, but according to the authorities’ directives and influenced by corruption. In such a context, NGOs play a crucial role as advocates for the rights of refugees. The Civic Assistance Committee helps refugees to access the asylum application procedure and to appeal against its denial, and protects them from deportation.

Students participating in the Summer School rated the block of seminars on work with refugees and migrants very highly. Some of them stated that they intend to link their future careers with the protection of the rights of refugees and migrants, and the seminars showed them perspectives and directions for further development in this area.

The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is delighted to see such positive development of work with law students within the Legal Dialogue Programme, and it hopes for further intensive collaboration with the International Summer School in Kaliningrad (read more about the programme here).