Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Recipient of the 2010 California Young Lawyers Association Jack Berman Award of Achievement

This article originally appeared in the California Bar Journal in October 2011.

Helping refugees, worldwide, is a young lawyer’s calling

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

These statistics are front and center on the Asylum Access website:

  • The average time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years.
  • Most refugees are denied the right to work and provide for their families.
  • Half of all refugees are children.
  • 126 countries have signed the Refugee Convention but refuse to honor it.
  • Developing countries are host to four-fifths of the world’s refugees.
Emily Arnold-Fernandez
Emily Arnold-Fernandez

Emily Arnold-Fernandez once assumed that some organization or agency was watching over the world’s refugees to make sure they were getting the rights to which they are entitled under international law. But an experience working on refugee rights in Egypt after her first year of law school demonstrated otherwise. Many deserving refugees were not even getting refugee status. Even those with refugee status were getting little beyond emergency food and shelter in camps. When the urgency of a refugee movement dissipated and the TV cameras went home, refugees were left to languish in tent camps. The prospect of getting a job, sending children to school, opening a bank account ― rights written into international law and enjoyed by the rest of society ― typically amounted to a pipe dream.

Rather than just lament the problem, Arnold-Fernandez decided to do something. After law school and some years working in civil rights law and for a nonprofit organization, she founded Asylum Access, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has enlisted volunteer lawyers and helped more than 7,000 refugees in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the five years of its existence.

For her work, Arnold-Fernandez, 34, is the recipient of the 2011 Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public presented by the California Young Lawyers Association. Named after a young lawyer killed in a shooting spree at a San Francisco law office in 1993, the award honors a lawyer who is in the first five years of active State Bar membership or under age 36 who has provided outstanding service to the legal profession and public and demonstrated dedication to issues of concern to new and young lawyers.

“I’m very, very honored,” Arnold-Fernandez said in an interview, adding that her work “is not an individual endeavor. It’s not something I can do alone.”

A graduate of Georgetown Law Center, Arnold-Fernandez’ interest in human rights started early. She was on her high school’s Amnesty International board, “my first introduction into human rights advocacy.” It was when she went to Egypt that “I became aware of massive violations of refugee human rights . . . I had an idea that rights would be respected, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.”

Her first experience was with a Liberian refugee who fled his country after he was abducted and forced to fight as a child soldier. The young man was initially denied refugee status, but Arnold-Fernandez “sweat blood” and got him the refugee status he deserved and he eventually settled in the United States ― a rare occurrence, she notes. Only 1 percent of refugees ever end up in the U.S., Canada or Australia. “I saw the profound impact of volunteer legal representation on the lives of refugees ― and the potential for a revolutionary model of legal aid,” she has said of her experience.

Before founding Asylum Access, Arnold-Fernandez litigated civil rights claims in private practice and with Equal Rights Advocates, where she was part of the legal team in the landmark gender discrimination case against WalMart. She has received numerous honors, including being named by the Dalai Lama as one of 50 “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” from around the world, honored as Pomona College’s Inspirational Young Alumna and she is a recipient of the prestigious Echoing Green fellowship.

As CEO of Asylum Access, Arnold-Fernandez is working to change regional laws to give more teeth to international law. Ecuador has been a particular success story and has rewritten its constitution to give more rights to refugees. She also has been pushing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to follow their own rules. “They’ve had some really serious due process problems,” including not giving refugees reasons for denial of asylum. Arnold-Fernandez credits the office with showing some improvement, however.

Arnold-Fernandez also oversees a growing number of projects around the world. Seventy-five percent of the work of the volunteer force of lawyers involves getting refugee status. “If you don’t have legal status, you can’t make a complaint to a government,” she says. Once refugee status is achieved, volunteers try to work informally at first to obtain other rights. For example, if a client has taken his child to school but been rebuffed by the headmaster because the child doesn’t have a birth certificate, the Asylum Access lawyer will meet with the headmaster to explain international law. If that doesn’t work, the lawyer may go to an administrative court. Other issues involve refugees, who Arnold-Fernandez calls “forced immigrants,” not being paid for their work. If an unofficial talk with the lawyer doesn’t work, the lawyer can take the case to a labor board, as has been done successfully in Ecuador.

Refugees also are being trained to do their own advocacy. Many do not know what rights they have, she says. To get an idea what refugees feel like, she instructs, imagine that one day you’re told the authorities are coming to kill you and you must leave the U.S. tonight. You go to the nearest border, Mexico, and you don’t speak Spanish, yet you’re supposed to explain in Spanish why you qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Conventions.

“For half a century, international law has given refugees the rights to live safely, seek employment, send children to school and rebuild their lives,” Arnold-Fernandez says. “But those rights are meaningless unless they are respected on the ground. Asylum Access provides a rare opportunity to fill a gaping hole in our human rights system ― by making refugee rights a reality for real people.”