Isabel Schayani and Niku Jafarina JD ’19 at WDR in Germany

By: Niku Jafarnia JD/MPP ’20

This J-term, I did an independent clinical in Germany, exploring the issues refugees are facing in the country, particularly with respect to legal advocacy and representation. More specifically, I wanted to explore the viability of an organization that would allow refugees to play a greater role in legal processes relevant to the refugee community.

From my work in the refugee legal advocacy space, I have been struck by the lack of initiatives that include and train members of the refugee community to work as legal advocates for themselves. I felt that Germany would be a good place to start building an organization that would work towards this goal. Since an influx of refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, the policies put in place by the German government, while far from perfect, have generally given Germany the image of being a “pro-refugee” society, particularly when compared to many of its neighbors. I wanted to test this claim, and learn more about what organizations in Germany were doing to support and empower refugees.

I had the opportunity to meet with people working across a vast spectrum of organizations, from small start-ups, to much larger government-supported NGOs, to German government and UN employees. I also had the opportunity to spend a day with Isabel Schayani (pictured), a former Harvard John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellow who started a program within WDR (a German public-broadcasting news station) that provides refugees with critical programming and information about their legal rights in Farsi and Arabic. Most importantly, I was able to meet with people who had come to Germany seeking asylum, and to hear their perspectives on the ever-changing asylum and refugee system in Germany.

During my research, I was particularly struck by the divergences between the German and U.S. asylum and refugee systems. Though the German system has significant room for improvement—particularly as their efforts to deport and exclude refugees have increased—there was a certain humanity that I recognized in the system of services and in the government-provided provisions, educational opportunities, and shelters provided to refugees. This image presented a stark contrast with the U.S.’s increasingly militarized southern border and systematic imprisonment of migrants. Hopefully, countries will look to Germany’s inclusionary policies as an example, rather than replicating the U.S.’s administration’s efforts to demonize and dehumanize those who have come to the U.S. seeking refuge.

While I still have many unanswered questions, my time in Germany has made clear that in spite of Germany’s more progressive policies toward refugees and migrants, there remains a lack of support for members of these communities to advocate for themselves, particularly in the legal sphere. On a more positive note, my research also revealed that there is a general willingness among many refugee-focused NGOs and government agencies to support an initiative that would empower refugees, and that would allow them to meaningfully participate in their own communities’ legal representation. I look forward to returning to Germany this summer to further explore my organizational idea.