Cris McCurley reports on Human Rights in Practice, an EU-funded project that aims to educate newly-arrived migrants on their rights as they learn the language of their new country, which is being piloted and rolled out across five European countries including the UK.1Cris McCurley is legal adviser to the project.
The brainchild of Yevgeniya Averhed and Ali Rashidi of Folkuniversitetet in partnership with Uppsala University, Sweden, Human Rights in Practice
was born from a desire to do something practical in the face of the 2015 migration crisis. It aims to raise migrants’ awareness of the human rights that protect them and their families in their new and strange environment, and to make them aware of the legal rights and protections offered to women and children, as well as of the possibility of state intervention into their private and family lives, which, depending on their country of origin, can be unthinkably mystifying. It’s worth noting that the UK government, which is signatory to all of the UN human rights treaties, is not doing this, even though it is treaty-bound to educate all citizens, indeed all of our society, on their rights.
For the project, five partner NGOs were recruited from Greece, Portugal, Germany, Sweden and the UK, all of which have direct, grass-roots experience of working with newly-arrived migrants. In the UK, the lead NGO is the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which works with women vulnerable to cultural forms of abuse.
The aim was to recruit five language tutors per partner country (in the UK, all ESOL-qualified) to be trained in international and domestic human rights treaties and legislation. The tutors in each country then produced local teaching manuals. Each tutor in each partner country then held language classes, for 20 participants, in two-hourly sessions spread over 10 weeks. No one could have anticipated the impact the classes would have.
My students have embraced the idea of human rights and the alternative view of life for women in particular, which is opening up for them.
At a feedback conference held in Sweden in December 2017, tutors related the experiences of their students, as well as the impact the project had on themselves. The tutors have embraced human rights and are keen to develop the programme and extend and promote it, as well as, in the UK, now being alive to the threats to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. One of the UK tutors, Emily Kanchefu-Mundangepfupfu, remarked: ‘My students have embraced the idea of human rights and the alternative view of life for women in particular, which is opening up for them.’
Notably, the women-only classes in the UK were full to capacity (and some exceeded it) throughout the pilot, where a drop-out rate of 50-60 per cent had been anticipated. Kanchefu-Mundangepfupfu added: ‘I usually have classes of 20 on paper, and five to seven show up sporadically per week. With this class, I have over 20, no room to sit and more are asking each week to join. I will have to run a second class. It’s the most active and vibrant class: 100 per cent self-motivated and engaged.’
There was a higher drop-out rate in the mixed classes, with male students perhaps finding subjects such as the right to freedom from harmful cultural practices, and the rights of women in general (through discussion of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and violence against women in respect of both criminal and civil law), more challenging.
Sanchita Hosali, acting director of the British Institute of Human Rights, is enthusiastic about the project and the findings of the pilot: ‘At BIHR, we see the power of human rights to transform lives every day, and we really welcome this project. Using human rights content to teach English is an innovative means of both showing the value of human rights and providing people who may be placed in vulnerable situations with the language skills they need as well as the knowledge to be empowered and active members of society.’
One element that has been essential in the classes is the tension between rights to private and family life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the state duty to intervene and protect. Female students talked of being afraid of the police as in many of their countries of origin there is no police protection, and little or no protective legislation. For some participants, the intervention of the state in children’s social care is unthinkable, so it is crucial for them to know how it operates in the UK.2In her article ‘Family justice and race: the need for a fundamental review?’ (Family Law Week, 24 March 2016), Garden Court Chambers barrister Rebekah Wilson outlined the lack of cultural competency in the family justice system, which is impacting on the outcome of public law cases for black, Asian and ethnic minority families.
The course also covers the right to legal representation and support services, and it is hoped that this knowledge will lead to migrant families using advice services before special Children Act proceedings are commenced.
Projects such as this have provided a vital link with other jurisdictions in terms of grass-roots issues and best practice. While time may be running out for EU funding in the UK, there remains a passion and a drive to ensure the sustainability of Human Rights in Practice language training here.