June 9, 2023
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Empathy and law: Public law interns tackle issues ranging from refugees to rental rules

Summer 2022 public law interns at Sheffield Hallam University, left to right: Panuwat Khamhaeng ’22, Olivia Vinson ’23, Grace Henderson ‘23 and Maya Tierney ’22 Summer 2022 public law interns at Sheffield Hallam University, left to right: Panuwat Khamhaeng ’22, Olivia Vinson ’23, Grace Henderson ‘23 and Maya Tierney ’22
Summer 2022 public law interns at Sheffield Hallam University, left to right: Panuwat Khamhaeng ’22, Olivia Vinson ’23, Grace Henderson ‘23 and Maya Tierney ’22 Image Credit: Provided photo.

When war struck Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s Home Office flung its doors wide.

In an unprecedented move, Britain permitted any private citizen or business to open their homes to refugees from the conflict. And while the usual rules on family reunification only allow refugees to bring their legal spouses or biological children, the net was cast much wider: aunts and uncles, cousins, fiancés and more.

Last summer, four Binghamton University students interning at Sheffield Hallam University’s Refugee Family Reunification Clinic in the UK took a close look at that nation’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees and how it differs starkly from those fleeing conflict in the Middle East or Africa.

During the intensive six-week program, Grace Henderson ‘23, Maya Tierney ’22, Olivia Vinson ’23 and Panuwat Khamhaeng ’22 attended interactive lectures, tutorials and open discussions centered on contemporary forced migration. They also worked alongside attorneys and caseworkers on refugee issues, and produced a research report: “Empathy for Ukraine,” which explores the impact of racial bias on UK Home Office guidelines.

“We’re not arguing that Ukraine should receive any lesser degree of treatment. Rather, we argue that these policies have been unequally distributed and therefore negatively impact Black and brown refugees,” said Vinson, an English major.

Vinson, Henderson and Tierney discussed their experience at Sheffield Hallam and their findings with the Harpur Law Council on Jan. 27. They were joined by Rachelle Casement ’23, who took part in a different public interest law internship last summer with the New York State Homes and Community Renewal Tenant Protection Unit. Donors to the Binghamton Fund and the Harpur Law Alumni Fund provided support for these internships.

Refugees in the UK

When you consider British newspaper headlines, the differences between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and those fleeing violence in other areas is stark, noted Henderson, a philosophy, politics and law major; efforts to help the former are depicted with empathy lacking for other groups.

There is an unstated perception that Ukrainian refugees are more deserving of help and family reunification, likely because they’re white, predominantly Christian and middle class, the interns discovered during their research.

To reach their conclusions, they compared the situation in Ukraine with four other conflicts: Afghanistan, Eritrea and Ethiopa, Syria, and Yemen. All have taken a massive toll on human life.

The war in Ukraine had displaced around 12 million people at the time of their report; the Syrian conflict was not far behind at 11.7 million. Civil war has displaced 4.2 million people in Yemen, 3.56 million in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and 3.4 million in Afghanistan. Millions of people in the affected countries also face food insecurity, even famine, as the result of armed conflict.

Of course, there are differences. The Ukrainians are fighting a defensive war against Russia, which invaded their country, while the conflicts in other countries are often internal in origin. There is also the idea of the liberal international order exemplified by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created largely to safeguard Western countries, said Tierney, a political science and human development major.

The report’s goal wasn’t to discount the suffering in Ukraine or the realities of civilian casualties, war crimes such as rape, or attacks on civilian infrastructure, Henderson said.

“Everything that the UK Home Office has done for Ukrainians is wonderful, and it should be applied to everybody,” Henderson said. “That’s our whole argument: We should be treating everybody equally.”

Making a difference

Public law interns find their experiences deeply meaningful and an excellent way to gain insight into prospective legal careers. Making a measurable difference — whether helping refugees reunite with family members or aiding low-income tenants in New York City housing complexes — is an added benefit.

During her internship with the Tenant Protection Unit, Casement learned about the more than 1 million rent-stabilized units in New York City, and saw firsthand how the unit works with tenants, property managers and landlords to address issues.

“In essence, our work was to identify patterns of illegal practices and then remediate those issues by either contacting landlords directly or issuing cease and desist letters,” said the senior philosophy, politics and law major.

That summer, she worked on creating action plans to address tenant issues, which included compiling data on the building in question, the relevant provisions in the rent stabilization code and any relevant case law. She also had the opportunity to visit buildings firsthand during task force investigations, including one in Brooklyn with more than 500 violations.

“It’s completely different reading about those violations versus seeing them in person,” she said. “We saw fire hazards, like propane tanks thrown around in the basement. We saw infestations of rats and roaches, and came across broken stairways and pools of sewage between the buildings.”

To Law Council members, she recounted an interaction that deeply moved her: Informing a long-time tenant about her legal rights in a dilapidated building, and aiding her efforts to secure needed repairs from her landlord.

“It was honestly the most incredible opportunity I’ve ever received in a legal internship,” she said.

Posted in: In the World, Harpur