Lawyer Wins Top UN Award for Aiding Boat People

Lawyer Wins Top UN Award for Aiding Boat People

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A Maltese lawyer who has fought for the rights of boat people fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea, including victims of trauma or torture and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, sometimes in the face of great danger to herself, today won the most prestigious United Nations refugee award.

Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), was given the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award for her “tireless efforts” and political courage to lobby and advocate for refugees.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate incidents and, in April, arsonists set fire to Ms. Camilleri’s car and her front door, terrifying her family trapped inside. The attacks shocked Maltese society and drew wide condemnation, including from the government.

The incident, she said, has not altered her desire to help asylum seekers risking their lives in flimsy boats to reach safety.

“I’m always impressed by how much hope they have and how much capacity in a sense, not only to keep hoping against hope, but to really make things happen,” she told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since 1997, Ms. Camilleri has provided legal advice to hundreds of persons kept in administrative detention centres in Malta, focusing her efforts on the most vulnerable.

“By making the award to Dr. Camilleri for her civic courage and for the inspiring example set by her actions, would like to honour all individuals who are working to improve the well-being of refugees,” the citation said.

The Nansen Refugee Award consists of a commemorative medal and a $100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to support a refugee project of the laureate’s choice.

After first helping to prevent the deportation of a Libyan asylum seeker who risked persecution if returned home, Ms. Camilleri’s interest grew, and in 1997 she started to work with the Malta office of JRS, first as a volunteer, then part-time and eventually full time. JRS became the first organization to offer a professional legal service on a regular basis to detainees.

In 2002, the number of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in Malta by boat increased sharply, a problem faced by European countries around the Mediterranean.

Ms. Camilleri leads the JRS Malta legal team of two lawyers and two case workers who, apart from handling asylum claims, challenges detention in individual cases and monitors the treatment of those in the centres. Conscious of the need for more lawyers trained in refugee law, she has helped set up a study unit for law students at the University of Malta in which students take cases, thus coming into contact with asylum seekers.

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