Students learn about refugee law in Yemen’s war zone

Student Esam Abdulhamid, 29, adjudicates in a simulated court hearing on a refugee case at the University of Sana’a.   (photo: UNHCR/Shabia Mantoo)

A group of law students takes part in a mock court hearing known as a “moot” in which they will arbitrate two refugee cases.

By Shabia Mantoo   |  11 October 2017   

SANA’A, Yemen - Yemen is a country in the midst of conflict and the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yet, even as civilians are being killed, injured or displaced, and some refugees opt to return home, it remains a place of refuge for more than 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers and is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol.

A group of law and judicial students are upholding Yemen’s long history of welcoming those in need of international protection, as the war rages on. On a bright, early autumn morning during the end-of-semester vacation, they fill a small lecture room in the University of Sana’a.

As part of a three-week long course on refugee law, they are participating in a simulated court hearing known as a “moot”, in which they will arbitrate two refugee cases.

As the proceedings start, a woman clasps her head and starts wailing while a man shrugs his shoulders in despair, both acting the part of asylum-seekers exasperated at the decisions read out to them.

Despite testifying to arduous journeys across the Gulf of Aden, fleeing conflict and persecution, both have been denied refugee status in the first part of the moot.

The woman’s cries fill the crowded courtroom and the gallery waits for the next scene to unfold, which will see the mock court adjudicate their appeal against the decision.

In traditional Yemeni court attire, consisting of a black cloak, a stiff white turban and an embroidered woolen shawl, a mock judge enters the court room. The gallery stands and the judge takes his place at an engraved wooden bench.

“The most important thing for today is that students understand who is a refugee and how decisions on refugee status are taken,” the moot’s judge, 29-year-old Esam Abdulhamid, says as the court is adjourned.

A law graduate and a real-life judge-in-training, Esam is enrolled in a two-year course at the Judicial Institute in Sana’a, where he recently finished a module on refugee law taught by staff from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Today’s moot will help put some of his training into practice.

To support national authorities and build capacity for refugee protection, UNHCR established the Migration and Refugee Studies Centre (MSRC), a research institute affiliated to the University of Sana’a, in 2009.

The centre provides courses on refugee law and protection to national authorities and institutions, including the police, judiciary, public prosecutors and law students.

The moot is the first of its kind organized by the centre and brings together the various institutions, authorities and students who have benefited from the training.

“Today’s moot court and the three-week law course for students focus on what refugee protection is all about – instilling in students appreciation and understanding of the refugee experience and, ultimately, capacitating them to be in a position to address it when the time comes,” says Gwendoline Mensah, UNHCR’s head of protection in Yemen.

Although Yemen is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it does not as yet have national legislation in place to make determinations on refugee status. In such situations, UNHCR takes on the responsibility of determining whether people seeking international protection qualify as refugees under international law.

“The work of the centre and even the simulated refugee court cases today are all part of the effort in trying to build capacity and momentum with the authorities to support them to draft a national refugee law and take full ownership of the process in determining refugee status,” says UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination Officer, Emad Daoud.

When the court reconvenes, each trainee lawyer addresses the bench. Lawyers for the asylum-seekers make passionate pleas about their cases, arguing their claims under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Esam, the judge, reads out the verdict: one of the asylum seeker’s claims for refugee status is successful, the other is not.

For 24-year-old law graduate, Haitham Al Shami, today’s moot has been educative. “I’m interested in refugee law because the world, including Yemen, is dealing with a global refugee crisis,” he says. “We have many refugees here.”

Outside the court, confused news reports filter in about a new site of hostility in a district close to the university, but it’s unclear whether any civilians have been killed. A few moments later, clarity arrives. No civilian deaths, this time at least.

For Mayar Faisal, another law student, the simulated moot and the reality of war help put civilian and refugee protection in perspective.

“The biggest challenge facing civilians and refugees in Yemen is safety,” she says. “There is war and yet there are many refugees in the country, so we just want to help them.”