Law Students Doing Cool Things: An Interview with Enbal Singer

Chloe Magee (2L)

Since Eritrea was recognized as an independent state, the country has been under the control of a one-man dictatorship. Upon reaching the age of 18, all Eritreans must serve an indeterminate period of compulsory military service. UN reports reveal that the regime consistently perpetrates human rights abuses including, among others, executions without trial, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and inhumane conditions of imprisonment.  Similarly, the recent history of Sudan has been characterized by widespread violations of basic civil and political rights.

For over a decade, individuals from both of these countries have been risking their lives to flee such atrocities, and many have crossed the Egyptian border to seek refuge in Israel. Given that Israel has signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol, it cannot, pursuant to the non-refoulement principle underpinning these documents, deport asylum seekers back to Eritrea and Sudan.

Israel has nonetheless maintained a refugee determination process that is unfavourable to asylum seekers from these countries. Despite being recognized as refugees at a relatively high rate in other countries, very few Eritreans and Sudanese have been granted refugee status in Israel. One implication of this refusal is that, without secure legal status, most Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are living under the constant threat of detention and deportation.

This situation persisted for several years, showing no sign of improvement. Then, in November of last year, things got worse: Israel announced its plan to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers without their consent.

It was against this backdrop that Enbal Singer (2L) decided to do something. Amidst the chaos that is first semester of 2L, Singer joined together with fellow activists in Toronto and founded Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel. She is actively involved as the co-chair and spokesperson for the group, and has received media coverage from outlets such as the Toronto Star and CBC. I chatted with her about the work she is doing for this cause, and about her unique approach to law school.

Q: What events prompted you to form the group Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel?

A: In 2014, the government of Israel reached an agreementa secret agreement, I should say, as it has never been admitted towith the governments of Rwanda and Uganda. These governments agreed to take asylum seekers from Israel, who are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, if they voluntarily deport themselves. This means that asylum seekers would be coerced into signing a document saying that they agree to leave to a safe third country. We don’t know exactly what the governments of Rwanda and Uganda received in return for this, but we think it was the right to purchase arms from the Israeli government.

Then, the Supreme Court of Israel affirmed that it would not violate Israeli law to deport individuals to safe countries that were willing to accept them, even without the consent of the individual involved. This decision marked a major turning point because it meant that, in theory, the government could deport people without their consent (that is, they wouldn’t even need to obtain the signed document first). That’s when we knew things were going to get bad, because it provided an opening for the government to proceed with deportations.

Once we anticipated that these deportations would start, we began organizing here in Canada. We wanted to help bring people to Canada so that they would be safe and wouldn’t have to worry about all of this, even if the deportations didn’t ultimately happen. So our group came together in order to do private refugee sponsorship in an organized way. We wanted to be a resource for anyone who was interested in sponsoring refugees or donating to the cause.

Q: How did your group react when the government of Israel announced its plan to proceed with the deportations?

A: Although we had anticipated this, we didn’t think it would be quite so drastic, so fast. We had to shift our focus a bit. One of the biggest hurdles we’re currently facing is that there are significant limitations on private refugee sponsorship (the only route by which a refugee in Israel can get to Canada), which means that there aren’t enough spaces to meet the demand. Also, sponsorship takes a while. It is, at minimum, a two-year process. But we know that everyone is going to get deported, and soon.

Because of this, we’ve shifted our focus towards advocacy. We’re asking the government to increase the space available for private sponsorship. Recently, we’ve been working on obtaining support from the community to make the government aware of the urgency surrounding this issue and of the amount of people who are willing to sponsor. I’m currently organizing a cross-Canada conference call to gain a sense of what everyone has been doing on this issue, what we would like to do, and who’s going to do what.

Q: What’s the rationale behind this limitation on private refugee sponsorship?

A: That’s a good question. Immigration is one of the areas of law in which the government has the most discretion. The problem is that refugees are not immigrants; they belong to a distinct legal category. That’s why we have the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. When a refugee comes to Canada, they’re saying “I don’t have a government that will protect me. I need refuge here.” But, the way that politics work, refugees often become scapegoats for various ills of society and are frequently treated as immigrants.

Technically, our refugee system shouldn’t be so discretionary. If you read the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, it says that Canadians have the right to sponsor a person who is recognized as being a refugee or in a refugee situation.

Q: You’ve been building towards a career working with refugees for a while. What made you pick law school as the next place at which to pursue this passion?

A: I finished my undergrad in December 2014, and by January I had decided that I wanted to go to law school. I knew I wanted to work with refugees, so I explored the various career options available. As it turns out, there is no “refugees” career; there are a bunch of different careers in which you work with refugees. So I did some exploring, met with various people, attended meetings, and it became clear to me that the lawyers were the ones having the most fun. They were doing the coolest work; they were setting precedent.

Back in 2012, the Harper government implemented the Interim Federal Health Program cuts. Under this program, the government removed access to health care for anyone claiming refugee status in Canada. I understood the rationale behind itthey didn’t want people to abuse the systembut it meant that many legitimate refugees weren’t getting health care. The lawyers began taking cases to the courts, and setting precedents that the government couldn’t ignore. This struck me as a cool way to get some wiggle room with a majority government that refuses to listen or respond to refugee needs. The law is especially important when it comes to addressing refugee needs; since refugees can’t vote, their needs are often the last priority. Being a permanent resident myself, and therefore someone who has never been able to vote in a formal federal election, I understand how difficult it is not to have that political capital. I wanted to go into law to change the things that I saw wrong with the system.

Q: What advice would you give to other law students who may be considering a non-traditional route? More specifically, how do you balance your advocacy work with a law student’s workload?

A: The day that grades are released is a nerve-wracking part of each semester. That being said, people are very responsive to the work that I’m doing, and they can see how passionate I am about it.

If you choose to pursue a non-traditional advocacy route, it’s not worth it to obsess about your grades, because that’s not where you’re going to have your successes. I’ve learned to embrace my resumé and my experience. Sometimes we’re made to feel like we have to have both—resumé and transcript—but I think it is important to embrace your strengths and lean into them. To me, this work is so much more rewarding than getting good grades.

I would also recommend taking advantage of the opportunities that exist at the law school for students pursuing a non-traditional route. The IHRP has been incredibly helpful in this regard, by providing me with funding over the summer to do employment law work in Israel. Through that opportunity, I was able to make connections and gain a better understanding of the community. I also gained useful advocacy skills through participating in the IHRP clinic. As an example, I learned how to create a briefing document, which is a 1- or 2- page document that you can take to meetings with members of Parliament. It summarizes the main issue, the background, the key considerations, and your recommendations. Based on what I learned from IHRP, I created one for this issue, and have since circulated it to people meeting with MPs. So, essentially, I would recommend using law school as a helpful tool, rather than allowing it to be a hindrance to your advocacy.

Doing something different from my classmates can definitely be a source of anxiety. But it’s about embracing the uncertainty. It takes building networks, making connections, and putting yourself out there. It’s not always going to be comfortable.