The work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few different pro-bono projects while I’ve been a trainee at Baker & McKenzie, most significantly representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Supreme Court.

Briefly, UNHCR’s main purpose is to protect the rights of refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. They are often called upon to intervene in particularly complex refugee cases both in the UK and abroad. They intervene in these kinds of cases because the courts recognise that they are particularly well placed to advise on all aspects of refugee law. They can be extremely persuasive, and Baker & McKenzie has assisted them pro bono for a number of years.

UNHCR intervened in this case where the Home Secretary, Theresa May, argued that refugees, or asylum seekers, should be returned to the EU Member State they first arrived in, regardless of whether or not there was evidence that they faced a real individual risk of inhuman or degrading treatment once returned there.

Broadly, UNHCR and the appellants submit that this is not the correct application of European law, and, where such a risk is manifest, refugees and asylum seekers should be protected from it and not be returned.

Being asked to write this article is timely, as it comes in the middle of this important two-day hearing at the Supreme Court which might decide the fate of the four individuals concerned in this case and also set a precedent that the lower courts will be bound to follow. Advocates for the appellants and for UNHCR have made an astonishingly persuasive case. Tomorrow morning I’ll be back in front of the 5 Justices of the Supreme Court and I’m interested to see what the home secretary lawyers have to say in response.

Regardless of the outcome, this has been a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK so working on this case has been a steep learning curve coupled with additional responsibilities and a lot more client exposure than trainees are usually afforded. The UNHCR is also brilliant to work with. They are a passionate and enthusiastic team and their enthusiasm is infectious. 

What is more, they’re high profile enough to attract two of the best barristers in this field, Michael Fordham QC and Marie Demetriou QC, to act pro bono on their behalf too.

I love my job but it’s not often it has such far reaching consequences for such a classically under-represented group as refugees and asylum seekers. It’s also extremely humbling working with the UNHCR. 

If the opportunity to work on something like this presents itself you have to run with it: you’d be amazed at how much your work is appreciated and how rewarding it can be.

Phoebe Seers is a trainee at Baker & McKenzie