Access to information on refugee and human rights: is it important and why?

A qualitative research that I have recently made in Lithuania – one of the ten new Member States of the EU – as part of my Master’s dissertation has shown that it is important to provide refugees and asylum seekers with an access to the information on refugee and human rights. Most interviewed respondents believed that such information would help them to protect their rights better.

Refugees in Lithuania were especially interested in the information, which would enable them to report on the violations more effectively. One refugee woman confessed that she had written a complaint on behalf of her family, but did not even know where to send it.

Some refugees explained that reporting was not a pleasant thing to do, but that nevertheless it was often the only viable solution. As an example, one refugee family believed that their benefits had been suspended illegally and decided to go to the police. The man assured: ‘I have never written a complaint in my life, except from here, in Lithuania. Now I am forced to do that. What else can I do?’ Another family managed to retrieve their suspended benefits with the help of a member of the Parliament, whose contacts they got from another refugee.

Social networks (family, friends and community members) and the Internet have been mentioned by refugees and asylum seekers in Lithuania as the main sources of information on refugee and human rights. The role of social networks  has been previously emphasized in a number of studies, ranging from the information on destination countries to the information on employment, language and vocational training. Much less has been, however, written on the role and the potential of the Internet.

Refugees and asylum seekers, who had searched for the information on the Internet, had been using Google search and the UNHCR website. Other refugees assured that they would use the Internet to find out more about their rights, but they did not know any relevant websites. Among the interviewed respondents, there were also individuals, who could not use the Internet due to the lack of computer literacy skills.

Consequently, is it suggested that in order to provide refugees and asylum seekers with a good access to the information on their rights, a combination of different methods should be used. While face-to-face counselling might still be used as the main method, it can be complemented by various Web-based initiatives. For example, alike the information on the rights of citizens, the information on the rights of refugees could be disseminated using e-government, national human rights websites, or the websites of major NGOs.

Web-based initiatives might be especially useful, where free legal counselling on refugee and human rights is rather limited and where refugees and asylum seekers have good access to the Internet, e.g. at refugee reception centres, day centres, or at home. Although printed materials might prove to be less effective, they should also be available for those, who have only limited access to free legal counselling and the Internet.

In Lithuania, refugees and asylum seekers were especially missing educative seminars and other interactive awareness raising activities. They claimed that legal counselling was not always easily accessible and not of a good quality. Moreover, in most cases, it was limited to the assistance during asylum and appeal procedure or other administrative issues, such as the extension of the Subsidiary Protection, residence permits, or integration programme.

In Lithuania and other countries, which have only limited provision of the information on refugee and human rights and not always of a good quality, it is important to assess the needs of refugees and asylum seekers and to look for additional means to provide a better access. Such efforts might require closer cooperation between various stakeholders, training of refugee and human rights lawyers, translation and wider distribution of relevant materials, and a more active involvement of the government.

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