Equal Rights Beyond Borders is a legal aid organisation headquartered in both Greece and Germany.
In response to the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016, we founded our first office in Chios in 2017. From the very beginning, close cooperation between Greek and German lawyers was central to our work. We based our approach on the concept of European solidarity, because the European asylum system and the EU’s external border concern all Europeans. Our work has expanded over the years: we currently work from offices in Berlin, Athens, Chios and Kos.
On 20 March 2016, the EU-Turkey Statement entered into force. According to this deal, Greece was required to deport all asylum seekers arriving on the Aegean islands back to Turkey. From the day the statement entered into force, the EU hotspots on the Greek islands transformed into detention and return centres. However, it remained unclear how this return policy could be implemented legally, as international and EU asylum law require the individual examination of all applications for asylum. There were also severe doubts as to the safety of Turkey for asylum seekers. The EU-Turkey Statement led to systemically unlawful practices, and the EU hotspots quickly turned into remote border zones of lawlessness.
In May 2016, a few young lawyers from various refugee law clinics in Germany travelled to Chios to discuss with Greek colleagues whether they could be of any help on the islands. Among them were Vinzent, Robert, Clara and Catharina, the founding members of Equal Rights Beyond Borders. What united them was a belief in the need for highly qualified and sustainable legal services on the islands, and that an approach based in Greek-German cooperation would be a welcome expression of intra-European solidarity. The beginning was not easy. Despite their unwavering commitment to use their legal qualifications where they were most urgently needed, these young lawyers required institutional funding and support to see their vision through.
This is where Katharina Voß from the Diakonie Deutschland in Berlin came in. Without Katharina’s trust in the founding team, Equal Rights Beyond Borders would not exist today. She believed in the project and did not sit still until she acquired enough funding for a one-year pilot project. Crucially, she also brought in Ansgar Gilster from the Protestant Church Germany (EKD). He believed in Equal Rights Beyond Borders from the very beginning and ensured that its work could be done. His support acted as a launching pad for what was soon to come.
2017 was the year of Equal Rights Beyond Borders’ pilot project: it opened its first office in May 2017 on Chios. The team chose Chios because legal aid was particularly scarce on that island–while the EU Hotspot of Moria on Lesvos was consistently in the media’s spotlight, the EU hotspots on other Greek islands were in no better condition. Clara worked in Chios for half a year, during which she coordinated a small team of volunteers, gained an understanding of practices on Chios, and liaised with Greek colleagues. A few months later, Catharina–and then Robert–took over as team coordinator. Anne and Kate also joined the Chios team; Anne remains committed to the work of Equal Rights Beyond Borders as a lawyer in the Berlin office.
Our successes during this first year were basic but significant. Most importantly, we identified the gap where German-Greek cooperation would be most useful: family reunification in the so-called Dublin procedure. This became the focus of our legal aid and strategic litigation. We replaced our first working place, occasionally referred to as ‘shithole’ by our own volunteers, with a simple office. We established ourselves in Chios and successfully applied for subsequent funding.
Through our sustainable approach and successful work, we gained the trust of partners and other NGOs. Crucially, we also earned the trust of the asylum seekers and refugees in the camp. Yaser was key to this feat: without him as an interpreter and cultural mediator, Equal Rights Beyond Borders would not exist today.
2017 was also marked by a personal tragedy: the loss of one of our earliest supporters, Carsten Hörich, in Chios. We owe him much, both professionally and personally, and we will always remember him. He stays with us, in our souls and in our work.
2018 was the year in which it became clear that Equal Rights Beyond Borders was more than a pilot project. Having worked successfully, gained experience, and established a close network among migration lawyers and NGOs in Greece and Germany, we were able to find people and organisations who were willing to support our work. It was Efthalia Pappa from the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) who eventually made explicit that the young group of German and Greek lawyers was welcome: We will never forget Vinzent’s dance with the lady in an old Taverna in Athens, after which Efthalia, being the soul of the NGO scene in Greece, solemnly pronounced: ‘You are part of the family now’.
In terms of concrete achievements, 2018 was marked by the opening of our second legal aid office in Athens, and the first successful litigation of a Dublin family reunion case before a German administrative court.
It was in autumn 2018 that we opened our Athens office. Again, it was practical needs that determined our action. Working on family reunification, we soon realised that it would be necessary to provide legal support to our clients once they were allowed to move on from the islands to the mainland. But again, we were lacking the necessary financial means. This time, Kristine Rembach and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) was the key. Kristine and Vinzent had met, and she was persuaded by our approach.
Niki, who had joined the Chios office in 2018 as trainee lawyer, was also convinced: Overnight, she decided to let go her plans of pursuing a Master’s program in Strasbourg, and instead went to Athens together with Vinzent. The two set up the office within a few months, and soon realised that there was more than enough work. We hence broadened our area of work, started to challenge unlawful detention practices, and expanded our litigation before the European Court of Human Rights.
Our first successful case before a German administrative court was key to our further work in the field of Dublin family reunification. The legal dispute was about whether asylum seekers staying in Greece have the right to lodge a remedy before German courts if their individual right to reunite with family members in Germany was denied. The court adopted the argument developed by us and decided that the fundamental right to an effective remedy must be granted across intra-European borders. Since then, we successfully litigate such cases. We are amazed to see that strategic litigation actually works.
2019 was the year in which we expanded our office in Athens. Aliki and Iliana, both experienced asylum lawyers whom we had known as reliable partners for years already, eventually joined our Athens team. Together with Anne from Berlin, they focused on Dublin family reunification.
In Chios, we were joined by Nicolas, Jamie and Greta. Nicolas, a young lawyer from Belgium, took over the office coordination from the founding team. A natural communicator, he proved that Belgian-Greek cooperation works equally well. Jamie, a human rights fellow from New York University School of Law, was able to immediately understand the situation and the needs in Chios. She is a bright legal mind and a great coordinator, which is why she then moved to Kos to establish our new office there in 2021. Greta, a young asylum lawyer from Italy, completed the team: having worked with us initially as a volunteer, she then decided to stay and took over the coordination when Jamie left.
In Berlin, we finally consolidated our office. Having worked from different places during the founding years, we now found a stable working space, where all of us could work. Fundraising, social media, accounting, litigation, there was simply too much work to be coordinated.
2020 was a particularly difficult year for Equal Rights Beyond Borders. We started the year with a field visit together with representatives of the Evangelical Church Germany (EKD), the Seebrücke movement and Mayors of several German cities to Athens and Lesvos. Literally on the way back, the situation in Greece in the field of refugee protection changed fundamentally. The Turkish president had announced that he would ‘open the borders’ and that ‘millions’ would come to the European Union. Greece’s reaction was immediate, borders were ‘closed’, live ammunition and lethal force were deployed, and the asylum law was ‘suspended’. Still at the airport on the way back to Lesvos, Niki together with Anastasia, who had recently joined us, and Mustafa immediately reacted and travelled to the border in Evros. The small team came back with several complaints to the European Court of Human Rights. Robert on his part was working around the clock to make sure that Equal Rights Beyond Borders could continue to operate, despite all those difficulties.
On top of this, we faced the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic had disastrous implications for the people living in refugee camps due to a discriminatory and deadly containment policy. Also, the work of lawyers was made particularly difficult. Luckily, Vivian joined to strengthen our Chios team coping with the difficult situation and increased need for legal aid on the island.
In the end, however, 2020 was a successful year. In Berlin, we started a new project with our cooperation partner IRAP: Together, we implement a family reunification project funded by UNHCR. This was the first project with which we extended our work beyond the EU: The focus lies on unaccompanied minors in Eastern Africa and the Middle East who apply for reunification with their family members in Germany. Corinna, an experienced and highly qualified asylum and migration lawyer, joined as coordinator. Despite the ongoing pandemic and difficult struggles with the German embassies, she was able to quickly establish Equal Rights Beyond Borders as a key actor in the field, and successfully litigated family reunification cases.
In January 2021, we opened our fourth office on the island of Kos. In a field visit we had identified that legal aid was urgently needed there. Plans to open earlier were jeopardized by the developments in Greece in 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic. As soon as we had the funding, Jamie moved from Chios to Kos, and quickly established our work there. Athina, an experienced asylum lawyer, joined her from the beginning. From the very first day, Equal Rights Beyond Borders had more than enough to do on Kos. Systematic detention was a constant issue, and the situation was only aggravated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In Athens, Alex, another expert in asylum law with substantial experience in the field, joined the team. Together with our colleagues from #LeaveNoOneBehind, we agreed that the systemic issue of undignifying living conditions in the camps urgently required more attention and action. Together with Anastasia, Alex focuses on this increasingly relevant issue.
In Berlin, Hannah joined our team as administrative coordinator. Finally, we had found somebody who would remind us of deadlines, regular team meetings, and help us better organise our social media work and case management.
We are thankful to have made it so far, despite all difficulties. We are grateful for the joy of working together for a common cause, with a team of bright and committed lawyers and interpreters. We are grateful for those who support our work and thereby make it possible.
We are especially grateful to the countless encounters with people from all over the world. They enrich our personal lives, and widen our horizon. It is for them that we continue our struggle against inhumane and unlawful practices.