Over the rainbow

Marios Kontos, winner of the In-House Solicitor of the Year award at the 2021 Law Society Excellence Awards, tells us about his work as a Legal Officer at Rainbow Migration, a charity that helps LGBTQI+ people with asylum and immigration cases in the UK.
Rainbow over beach at low tide, blue sky and clouds reflected on the shallow water
Photograph: Francesco Ungaro

Supporting LGBTQI+ people through the asylum and immigration system is a specific yet multifaceted mission that Rainbow Migration has successfully pursued since 1993.

Managing and delivering a legal service that caters to people fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is a key feature of such a mission, which I had the privilege of doing for two and a half years.

I was part of a small and inclusive team of people whose work transcended policy, campaigning and service provision. Being the go-to lawyer of this interdisciplinary team gave me a refreshing view of working in-house for a charity with a nationwide reach and international appeal.

Working with clients

The people seeking immigration advice from Rainbow Migration came from all walks of life. They included foreign students whose visa was about to expire but were scared of returning to their home countries after living freely and openly in the UK. A few were foreign – or even British – nationals who wanted to bring over their same-sex partner from overseas. Others were detained and about to be removed.

Many others were dispersed across the country while waiting to hear back from the Home Office or a tribunal about their asylum claims or appeals. All of them needed guidance on how to navigate the complexities of their immigration situation.

To be able to advise such diverse clientele, it was often necessary to delve into their life experiences to extract sensitive information. This could become a challenging task as some had suffered persecution in their home countries or even ostracism from their diaspora in the UK.

Some were victims of torture or trafficking, and there were others who – due to cultural and language barriers – struggled to articulate the homophobia or transphobia they had experienced or were feeling uneasy about formulating an identity within a Western context.

The mixture of these cases was a true reflection of the 1,200 plus consultations that the legal service offered during my tenure to a mosaic of nearly 100 nationalities.

A changing world

An effective consultation with a client not only required knowledge of immigration law but also empathy and good listening skills. Familiarity with country guidance cases and relevant country policy and information notes could drastically determine how to guide a client on going about their asylum claim.

It was also important to be aware of changes in a client's home country – for example, decriminalisation of homosexuality or new anti-LGBTQI+ laws – as these could massively affect the chances of success in a case. Despite not offering legal representation, clients still appreciated even the slightest piece of advice that we provided confidentially and for free.

Fortunately, the obstacles of running the service during the pandemic did not prove insurmountable. As with all of Rainbow Migration’s operations, the provision of legal advice turned exclusively remote, which proved how much we could achieve just by using a phone and a laptop from the safety of our homes.

In parallel with our practice, clients also showed immense tenacity and adaptability. Regardless of their isolation, they were still able to scan or take pictures of their immigration documents to send them over for an assessment of their case.

Playing a unique role

Working in-house meant that I could also immerse myself in tasks and projects that would not have presented themselves so easily in private practice. I had the benefit of not only advising and training fellow lawyers on sexual orientation or gender identity asylum claims, but also to work in synergy with practitioners who participated in our pro bono sessions or who invited Rainbow Migration to join them in strategic litigation before the European Court of Human Rights.

I also enjoyed supervising fellow staff on securing publicly funded representation for a substantial number of people seeking our help.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of my role was its gradual evolution into a real synthesis of law and policy. As a result of heading a nationwide service, I acquired a comprehensive view of the issues faced by LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum, which enabled me to treat their singular pursuits as broad policy objectives. Therefore, I would regularly attend meetings with policymakers and fellow stakeholders to monitor and advocate for meaningful change.

I was also fortunate to contribute to Rainbow Migration’s submissions of evidence to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, whose inspection of asylum casework found that the Home Office applies a higher standard of proof than guidance dictates when refusing people asylum.

Although having a career that is consistent with my beliefs is a joy that cannot easily be eclipsed, winning a Law Society Award from two nominations was a moment of pride. Peer recognition is always welcome in a field where lawyers are usually under-resourced while facing a system that views them and their clients as a threat.

It was also a pleasure to see that the legal profession has begun to afford more visibility to the LGBTQI+ community in an era where identities seem to matter more than ever before.

On a deeply personal note, that instance of recognition became a sudden realisation that my commitment has not changed since I arrived as a student in the UK twelve years ago, when I would always carry an English dictionary with my law books along with an aspiration to make a difference.

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