Illustration of persons walking on a ‘bridge’ of paper sheets
Refugee crisis: according to UNHCR there are more than 108mn forcibly displaced people worldwide © Efi Chalikopoulou

When war broke out in Ukraine last year, migrants in a detention centre near the southern city of Mykolayiv found themselves stuck perilously close to the front line. Two months into the conflict, as bombs fell on buildings nearby, there was no sign they could be relocated.

The group was eventually moved, but only after the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD) intervened. With the help of eight international law firms, the network of civil society organisations in Italy presented an urgent request to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the detainees’ lives were at immediate risk.

Days after the last individuals were moved out of the centre, it was destroyed by a missile. CILD’s efforts in Mykolayiv were part of its pro bono “Rule 39 Initiative”, named after a little-known — and often misused — European Court of Human Rights provision that allows applicants to seek interim and emergency measures when a state is contravening their rights in a way likely to cause irreparable damage.

‘The Ukraine conflict was just another emergency on top of an existing crisis,’ says Fabi Fugazza at CILD. Evacuees from Ukraine cross a destroyed bridge in March 2022. © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, there are more than 108mn forcibly displaced people worldwide, and the need for legal support for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees has never been higher. Lawyers across the world have stepped up to meet this demand with innovative responses to the protracted humanitarian crisis. 

“Thousands of people need help,” says Fabi Fugazza, chief operating officer at CILD. “The Ukraine conflict was just another emergency on top of an existing crisis.”

The initiative — one of five pro bono schemes the organisation runs — was conceived in 2021, when project leader Daria Sartori, a lawyer and human rights expert, noticed Rule 39 was not being used effectively: cases were often badly prepared due to a lack of knowledge. Together with CILD, Sartori set up a scheme focused on the legally robust use of the niche provision.

As well as bringing its own cases, CILD has trained other non-governmental organisations on how to make better use of the rule. Since the programme was established, it has assisted more than 400 people from 10 countries.

“There isn’t a really strong pro bono culture in Italy,” says Loredana Leo, a lawyer supervising one of CILD’s other, similar initiatives. These projects, “which are new in the Italian legal system”, are useful in establishing pro bono as a core part of legal work, she explains.

In Portugal, lawyers were able to protect the lives of a group of Afghan musicians under threat of Taliban rule in 2021, after strict censorship of music was imposed in Afghanistan.

Lawyers at Morais Leitão, Galvão Teles, Soares da Silva & Associates helped relocate more than 270 students (including 100 unaccompanied minors) from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul to Lisbon. They persuaded the Portuguese courts to consider the fate of the group as a whole, rather than as individuals.

“The basic principle in Portugal for unaccompanied minors is that they go to a children’s court, where they decide what is best for the specific child,” explains Filipe Lowndes Marques, a partner at Morais Leitão. “Lots of individual court cases being resolved through a collective decision like this has never been achieved before.”

Rather than splitting the group up, lawyers pushed to keep the students close together and have helped them adjust to life in Portugal. The musicians performed their first concert in Lisbon in October 2022.

That same year, lawyers at Spanish firm Uría Menéndez also won an unprecedented case for migrants’ rights in Spain. Through a three-year battle, the pro bono team secured Spanish nationality for a young girl born while her mother was fleeing from Cameroon via Morocco to Europe. With no identification or proof of her birth when she arrived in Spain, the girl’s fundamental rights were in breach as she was unable to attend school or register for healthcare, explains José Alberto Navarro, a partner at Uría Menéndez.

After failed attempts with Cameroonian and Moroccan authorities, the lawyers argued that, if the Spanish court did not agree to grant the girl nationality, it would be failing in its duty to protect a child’s rights.

“Our expectations were that this was an impossible case to win,” says Navarro. “She had none of the requirements for nationality. But the fundamental rights of the child are protected by international law.”

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Navarro hopes the case will set a precedent for similar “invisible” children born during migration journeys. However, the scale of aid needed for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers remains a challenge.

Last year, Ranajoy Basu, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery and a structured finance specialist, led a team acting as lead counsel to the UN to help launch the Global Islamic Fund for Refugees (GIFR). Established in partnership with the Islamic Development Bank, the sharia-compliant fund invests contributions in accordance with the principles of Islamic finance and sharia law.

Creating the fund, which aims to raise $500mn, involved matching up the legal and regulatory frameworks, as well as the financial and governance models, between the public and private sector. The investment proceeds will go towards humanitarian aid for refugees.

But vast sums are required to meet demand, says Basu. “No amount of government funding or foundation money is going to suffice. We need millions, probably billions to solve the problem.”

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