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AMERA-Egypt, Flagship of the Refugee Legal Aid Movement, Struggles for Financial Survival

March 22, 2013

Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance’s Egypt office is scheduled to run out of funds in less than two months. Its British-based board has issued a notice of closure to take effect at the end of May if no additional funds are found.

For a decade, AMERA has been at the vanguard of the movement to introduce refugee legal aid into the global south. Operating as a general legal aid service organization, it provides refugees assistance in accessing medical and social services, administrative and security problems involving the Egyptian government, and refugee status determination with UNHCR. It has also been a pioneer in integrating psychosocial services with more traditional legal aid.

The organization was founded in 2003 by Prof. Barbara Harrell-Bond from pilot projects that were previously housed at the American University in Cairo and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. It has helped inspire the growth of legal aid programs in Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand, South Africa, Hong Kong, Ecuador and other countries. A long list of leaders of refugee legal aid programs in Latin America, Africa and Asia started their careers at AMERA-Egypt or came to AMERA for training.

I was a lawyer with the early versions of the program (before if was called AMERA), back in 2001 and 2002, and returned later as director. I also saw refugee life in Egypt in 1998, before AMERA, and so I know the vacuum that existed before. It is difficult to imagine promoting refugee rights in Egypt in the future without AMERA’s existence. It’s important to note that in 2000 and 2001, UNHCR’s Cairo office accepted the idea of legal aid in its RSD procedures at a time with many other UNHCR offices rejected it. The relationship between AMERA and UNHCR-Cairo was a critical basis for UNHCR’s eventual global recognition of the right to counsel in its RSD procedures.

In an appeal to supporters, AMERA suggested that donor focus on new initiatives and promotion of democracy in response to the Arab Spring has made it difficult for AMERA to attract funding. AMERA tends not to bring high profile cases in court, it rarely publishes reports, and its website is rudimentary. AMERA is not on Twitter. AMERA focuses instead on defending human rights in practical terms, by helping refugees get recognized legal status, get a medical referral in an emergency, helping their children get into school, and so on. It defends human rights one case at a time, helping otherwise marginalized people speak for themselves with the institutions that wield power over their lives.

One of my favorite stories when I was the AMERA director had to do with a bureaucratic problem between UNHCR and one of its partners that led to a few months of delay in providing subsistence money to Cairo’s most vulnerable refugees. The human impact was that dozens of families were threatened with eviction because they couldn’t pay their rent. AMERA’s staff kept them in their apartments by making phone calls to the landlords, and explaining that the money would come, they just needed to wait. This kind of human rights advocacy is so simple and so low profile that it is far too easy to forget how rare it is, and how heroic it is in the lives of the affected families. AMERA is, at its heart, a human rights, legal aid organization. But it is the kind of human rights organization that knows that sometimes the best way to defend the international human right to housing is by just making a phone call.

This is familiar work to lawyers and social workers in legal and social services organizations in countries with well-developed civil society and justice systems. But it remains a novel concept in many countries, and not an easy sell to donors who want to make a high profile splash after a revolution. And, while AMERA has innovated ways of using volunteers alongside paid staff, delivering legal aid is expensive. Worse than that for funders, legal aid is a continuing need, rather than a one-off program that can claim a huge impact from a non-renewable grant. What AMERA delivers is tangible human rights for real people – the kind of human rights that gets people out of prison, gives them a place to sleep and teaches their children to read. It should be a model for activists interested in renegotiating how average people relate to authority in the Middle East.

Donations to AMERA can be made online at this link.

  1. Antigone Sabaudia permalink
    March 27, 2013 1:54 pm

    Amera does stunning work. The link to make an online donation does NOT work.

    • March 27, 2013 2:59 pm

      I checked the donation link – it appears to be working. You can donate by check, PayPal, or JustGiving.

  2. Abubakarr Jalloh permalink
    April 9, 2013 5:19 pm

    It is quite sad to hear AMERA’s financial troubles…An organization like AMERA, which contribute significantly to the lives of refugees shouldn’t be facing such a threat as being closed.

  3. April 10, 2013 12:10 am

    It is sad to hear this…. Such an organization that assists refugees should not be facing such a threat.

  4. April 19, 2013 3:28 pm

    Micheal, couldn’t AUC help? FMRS & Human Right’s Graduate Program can help by fundraising on campus or afiliation -no? It saddens me to read this & brings back memories…..


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