Technology and refugee legal aid in Iraqi Kurdistan
Maryam – a pseudonym used for a Syrian woman we spoke to in one of the refugee camps in the Erbil governorate – reflects on the online awareness sessions provided by humanitarian organisations in response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). ‘For the organisations, maybe it was good. They continued their work. But for us, it was not good.’ The organisation whose awareness sessions she attended provided participants with headphones and told them to keep their personal information to themselves, but the living conditions in refugee camp housing during lockdown made participation difficult. Moreover, there was a mismatch between the technologies used by refugees and those preferred by organisations. Maryam critiques: ‘We usually use WhatsApp, Viber. Not Zoom like the organisations wanted us to use.’ These communicational problems were also present in other aspects of life in the camps. Efforts to move to online education for refugee children were halted after two weeks, because there were too few devices available.
Over the last year, we have conducted interviews with legal aid professionals, humanitarian practitioners and refugees themselves to gain insight into the potential and limitations of digital refugee legal aid in the KRI, taking into account the challenges of COVID-19 and governmental measures to control the disease. Whereas some emergency measures were only temporary, other changes are here to stay or have longer-term ripple effects. What does this mean for the experiences and practices of displaced persons seeking legal aid and the people seeking to aid them in the KRI? Digitalising legal aid to address the precarious circumstances of displaced persons is far from straightforward. Here we provide some initial reflections on contextual factors that need to be considered: bureaucratic procedures requiring in-person visits, the vulnerable circumstances in which people find themselves, the lack of privacy legislation, and the digital transition’s potential for multiplying workloads. Before we delve into these factors, we will describe the refugee protection landscape in the KRI and the role of refugee legal aid.
Refugee legal aid in the KRI
Like most Middle Eastern countries, Iraq is neither party to the Refugee Convention nor its Protocol. More than 98% of Iraq’s refugees reside in the KRI, an autonomous federalist state in the north of Iraq. In January 2022 this included 256,006 people hailing from Syria and 38,790 people from other countries such as Turkey, Iran and Palestine. Of the Syrian refugees, approximately 39% were residing in camps.
The aim of refugee legal aid is to facilitate refugees’ access to rights. Refugee legal aid can focus on different areas, such as civil documentation, housing and work, criminal matters, refugee status determination, etc. We found that in the KRI, most legal aid for displaced persons is focused on documentation. This includes obtaining marriage, birth and death certificates, as well as receiving and renewing residency cards. Indeed, people seeking refuge often have more difficulties with obtaining or renewing legal documents, which are key for accessing services and safeguarding rights, such as the right to work, healthcare, and education. Moreover, the focus on documentation also relates to the KRI’s security-driven residency regime, as residency cards need to be annually renewed. Refugees are also required to renew their asylum seeker certificate, issued by UNHCR.
Persistence of the backlog for renewing legal documents
Continuing these legal aid activities during COVID-19 was extremely challenging, since they require in-person interactions to obtain fingerprints and conduct iris scans. Similarly, UNHCR halted the issuance and renewal of asylum seeker certificates for almost a year. Consequently, it was impossible for people to renew their residency, rendering many illegal in the KRI. Security and governmental offices were, as we were told by many, aware and lenient. Advocacy by UNHCR and legal aid organisations secured an exemption from the fines that usually come with overstaying one’s residency. Moreover, appointments with governmental offices can now be made online, requiring one less in-person visit.
At the time of writing, there is still a backlog for renewing legal documents. This also became evident when on a sunny afternoon in April 2022, we were sitting inside the caravan of the local council (Encûman Kampa) in one of the four refugee camps located in the Erbil governorate. A woman showed her residency card to one of the council members, who subsequently explained to us that her card was expired, but not expired enough. At present, they told us, they were dealing with cases from 2020. Yet, we also often heard – in this camp and beyond, from refugee council members and legal aid workers – that the backlog had now become manageable.
Communication and precarious circumstances
Despite the closures of UNHCR and government offices, there were efforts to try and continue legal aid practices remotely during COVID-19. Awareness sessions were moved online, but as mentioned above, responses to these activities were mixed. Indeed, in-person meetings tend to be preferred for legal matters. Much focus was also placed on ensuring people they were not forgotten, through helplines and WhatsApp communication. Many organisations had a Facebook presence but were reluctant to use it for two-way communication, partly because it would entail people sharing their personal information – names, dates of birth, UNHCR ID numbers – publicly. At the same time, the lack of response to complaints, questions, etc. also tended to reinforce the disconnect that people already experience in difficult circumstances.
Legislation and practices around data protection
The legislative framework around data protection is important to consider in any transition to digital. Iraq and Kurdistan do not have their own data protection legislation. However, domestic legislation provides many opportunities for surveillance under the guise of security. The legal aid professionals and humanitarian practitioners put much trust in Standard Operation Procedures and UNHCR’s Data Protection Policy, which are both difficult to enforce legally. In practice, we found that much personal information is shared. Sometimes, this is for valid reasons: for instance, using encrypted WhatsApp messaging to send photocopies of official documents. Sharing this information can be crucial, especially in a context of limited mobility. Organisations are not always careful while handling information either: on some occasions, we found UNHCR documents lingering on desks or were shown databases with personal information that we should not have been privy to.
Efficiency or the multiplicity of labour?
It is often argued that digital technologies would make procedures more efficient. This is not necessarily the case. Often the digital does not replace but rather comes to co-exist with offline practices and paperwork. For instance, we found that, within some organisations, legal aid professionals were required to keep separate offline and online logs and fill in twice as much paperwork as before. Moreover, local courts continue to rely on paper forms, multiplying their workload. The same phenomenon happens when processing information in organisational databases and producing reports for donors.
People who become forcefully displaced often experience prolonged uncertainties regarding their legal stay and access to rights. This, combined with the lack of social networks, elusive bureaucratic procedures and entrenched interests of governmental and non-governmental figures, creates great challenges for gearing practices towards a more dignified treatment of displaced persons. Our research reveals the potential of digitalising existing legal aid practices and developing new ones, specifically in relation to the refugee protection landscape in the KRI. Technology-enabled legal aid initiatives can be helpful to overcome the many barriers that displaced persons find themselves in. However, if and when socio-economic and legal barriers are ignored, technological solutions can easily deepen the inequalities that we believe refugee legal aid ought to address.
Abdullah Yassen (Abdullah.firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor in Public International Law, and Head of Cultural Relations, International Office at Erbil Polytechnic University.
In response to sustained persecution against the Kurdish people, Abdullah Yassen claimed asylum in the UK where he lived for 14 years. He received a PhD in International Refugee Law at Newcastle University. He is currently involved as an external researcher in the REF-ARAB project, based at the University of Oslo, and as an external legal expert for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). He has published several papers in the field of forced migration, refugee law and minority rights.
Mirjam Twigt (email@example.com) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Criminology and Sociology of Law (IKRS) at the University of Oslo. For the REF-ARAB project – funded by the Norwegian Research Council – she explores refugee legal aid practices in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). She has been working on digital connectivity and forced migration in Jordan and Iraq for the last 10 years. Her monograph Mediated Lives – Waiting and Hope among Iraqi refugees in Jordan was published by Berghahn Books in January 2022.