CSOs and legal firms must cooperate to support exploited Asian migrants

Organizations working in the anti-trafficking and forced labour sphere must increase their cooperation and with legal firms and pro-bono lawyers. This, in order to address the legal needs of vulnerable Asian migrants in Europe, according to experts. At a workshop held on 26th of January, hosted by Freedom Collaborative, PILnet and La Strada International, civil society and legal representatives from across Europe and Asia concluded that working together would be the most effective way to tackle the challenges around the exploitation and trafficking of these migrants.

The meeting, which was designed to facilitate exchange and opportunities for collaboration, highlighted the many issues that CSOs in Europe and Asia face in providing legal support to trafficked and exploited Asian migrants in Europe and returnees in Asia. Some organizations assisting Asian workers that have been exploited in Europe, face many legal dilemmas in their daily operations, but have a limited budget with which to process them. Cases of Asian victims of human trafficking and exploited migrants are complicated; organizations mentioned that, often, criminal trafficking actions are dismissed and or end up being reclassified as labour violation civil suits, and this represents a particular challenge for them.

While victims of trafficking in Europe mainly receive legal assistance for the pursuit of criminal actions, assistance with prosecutions, and compensation claims, other critical challenges go unsupported, such as access to remedy and the enforcement of compensation payments. When clients are repatriated, access to compensation is almost impossible to achieve and therefore cross-regional case collaboration is needed, the participating organizations said. Legal aid for repatriated victims is an under-researched area and an urgent matter given the cross-border nature of trafficking and the high number of foreign victims in European countries.

Organizations also described the disparities in the quality of legal assistance they see between urban areas and rural regions, which put people in rural areas at a distinct disadvantage – they have less access to specified counselling and supporting organizations, or to lawyers trained – and specialised – in human trafficking. Victims who live in rural areas are usually assisted by lawyers based in urban settings.

Participants also highlighted the need for greater awareness of the potential of corporate accountability and supply chain approaches for anti-trafficking work. Training is needed on the identification and building of potential transnational corporate accountability legal actions and supply chain investigations, and on the jurisdictions and foreign laws that could enable or affect them. Again, stronger partnerships are critical, as currently there are limited connections between local lawyers and NGOs working on the ground and Global North actors engaged in corporate accountability cases.

While law firms mentioned a decrease in available capacity due to an increase in commercial work and high turnover in offices in Asia because of the pandemic, there are opportunities for pro bono support. According to the workshop participants, displacement has become a priority topic for law firms operating in Asia. While there is a need for checks on conflicts of interest, law firms can connect with lawyers on the ground and make use of their global network and multi-jurisdictional experience. As a starting point for further work, support in mapping the existing provision of free legal advice for migrant groups in Asia and Europe – legal aid in Europe in particular – was discussed as a potential next action. Joint action around strategic litigation was also meant as a priority for future cooperation.

The meeting highlighted the need for greater exchange between stakeholders in Europe and Asia and participants welcomed the opportunity to build new connections. Legal representatives gained a new understanding of the many challenges that CSOs are dealing with, and the civil society representatives gained greater awareness of available pro-bono opportunities – including virtual case cooperation – which could be a way to address the lack of pro-bono support in non-wealthy countries in Europe and Asia.