Human rights at the borders training: our Legal Officer reports!

Last month, I had the privilege to participate in a training organised by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on the topic of Human Rights at International Borders: Monitoring, Safety and Security of Human Rights Defenders.

This week was a unique opportunity to take a step back from my daily duties as a Legal Officer at aditus foundation. In fact, it is extremely easy to get caught up in the busyness of providing legal assistance to the most at need in a period when migration policies are increasingly austere. I believe it is crucial to dedicate some time to think about what we do, why we do it, and how we do it in order to have the ‘bigger picture’ in mind and achieve greater goals. 

Thus, this training was a welcome reminder of the human rights principles applicable at international borders. The floor was given to us so that each participant presents the key human rights issues relevant for the treatment of migrants in his or her country. In my opinion, in Malta these issues are pushbacks and immigration detention, which are exacerbated by the decline in the rule of law.

In the end, we observed that whether in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain or Türkiye, our challenges are very similar. It gave us a chance to exchange best practices based on our grass roots experience. As for Malta, if we had to mention only one success story from the past year, it would be the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights condemning a series of failings in Malta’s asylum procedure in the landmark case S.H v. Malta.

Engaging sessions

A day was dedicated to discussing human rights monitoring and advocacy. In particular, I discovered the mission of the International Commission on Missing Persons and how relevant it could be for our work. In smaller groups we were asked to develop a monitoring and advocacy strategy around a thematic of our interest. To finish, I gave a successful elevator speech which convinced our trainers, representing different entities, to fund our initiative!

During a session related to access, screening, interviewing, detention and return, two persons from the Lighthouse Reports came to present their fascinating investigations, especially at the Hungarian Border and in Melilla. It led the trainers to introduce us to the Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders since we frequently expose ourselves to certain risks in order to document and denounce serious violations of human rights. 

I had the privilege of evolving among a group of incredible Human Rights Defenders with actual diverse backgrounds and still one aim: make this world a safer and fairer place where all human beings, treated equally and with dignity, enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Trauma and well-being

However, what caught my attention the most was addressing the key principles of trauma-informed, gender and diversity-sensitive interviewing. Indeed, it is specifically pertinent with two aspects of my role at aditus. Firstly, when I visit migrants in detention centers to provide legal assistance. Most of them suffer from traumas related to their time in Libya, their journey to Europe by boat, and the detention conditions in which they find themselves. Secondly, when I prepare asylum-seekers in view of their interview for international protection.

In both cases, care must be taken not to re-traumatize the person. It is also necessary to know how to interpret the unspoken and to be vigilant to certain signs which can make possible to identify individual vulnerabilities in a person, for example as a victim of human trafficking. This knowledge is fundamental in our work, and was not part of my formation as a legal practitioner. I am glad I gained this in-depth understanding on how to carry out my work with increased knowledge and sensitivity.

While it is essential to know our limits, the expert on psycho-social and physical safety and security stressed out that it is also up to us to be careful about our colleagues’ well-being.

It was also tremendous important to to talk about personal safety and security wellbeing. We touched upon subjects such as self-care, stress signature or burnout and were given practical tips to ensure our good health, both mental and physical. It is true that operating in an emergency/crisis context pushes us not to prioritize our well-being. However, we know for a fact that if we do not pay attention to ourselves, we will be less attentive to others and it will affect the quality of our services in the long run.

While it is essential to know our limits, the expert on psycho-social and physical safety and security stressed that it is also up to us to be careful about our colleagues’ well-being. The expert suggested to create a peering support to make sure every person in the office is looked after and as a great way to deal with work-related frustrations. Ultimately, she emphasized the necessity of having a well-being, safety and security policy in our organisations.

A key subject that was tackled in this week of training is the key development that we are facing in the 21st century: that of digital security. For novices like me in the matter, it was more than vital to address this topic. We started with the basics: what is a VPN/Bitlocker, what is the most secure way of communication between Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram… (definitely not Messenger, as it is safer to use encrypted messaging!). Certainly, the question arises when it comes to working on extremely sensitive files so as to protect our sources of information. According to the Meta Transparency Center in 74,80% of cases user data was provided to the authorities by the service provider upon requests from the Government of Malta. I acknowledged the urgency to have a digital security policy within the organisations. In order to do so, we could possibly make use of the Digital First Aid Kit. It is a resource to help rapid responders, digital security trainers and tech-savvy activists to better protect themselves and the communities they support against the most common types of digital emergencies.

What do I take home with me?

This is the best training I have attended so far! What made it so special was its format: a week out of office truly gives the opportunity to disconnect and immerse ourselves to properly receive all the information. Furthermore, each theoretical session was interactive and coupled with a simulation exercise, there were energizer activities after lunches and much more. 

However the best element of the training were the people present! I had the privilege of learning among a group of incredible Human Rights Defenders with diverse backgrounds but with one single common aim: to make this world a safer and fairer place where all human beings, treated equally and with dignity, enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms.

This conviction and dedication is at the cornerstone of our work, it helps us overcoming obstacles and keep us going despite everything. Beyond a training, it was a human experience that allowed us to create a network of people we can trust and rely on. It gave me increased faith and strength to go back to my daily activities, that is to say to monitor, report, and act on access to human rights in Malta.