The Ara Trust (Ara) was set up in 2013 with the mission of expanding the protection space for refugees in India, a country which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and does not have a domestic asylum law. Ara is India’s first and only refugee law centre. It was set up by former United Nations (UN) legal officers and is a women-led organisation. Ara has a team of 4 female lawyers, 3 interpreters and a filing staff. It is presently funded by the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Spark NY, AmplifyChange UK, and individual donors. It has previously received funding from The Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights (KIOS), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and The Embassy of the Swiss Confederation in India. Recently, Ara formalised a working relationship with one of the world’s leading law firms, Clifford Chance LLP, as a result of which Ara receives pro bono casework hours from their lawyers and has also received financial assistance for the current year.
Ara’s clients are from countries either severely affected by conflict or with failed/oppressive states, like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. More than 70% of its clients are women and children, many of whom have faced severe sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Ara’s clients also include victims of war, victims of anti-government elements like the Taliban, LGBTI individuals, and survivors of extreme torture. Since 2013, the office has provided legal assistance to more than 1200 asylum-seekers. Ara’s activities primarily involve providing pro bono legal counselling and representation to refugees seeking asylum before UNHCR; identifying the immediate protection risks of vulnerable asylum-seekers; seeking UNHCR intervention for vulnerable cases and referring them to support services; creating awareness through tailored trainings and workshops for the refugee community, universities, government agencies etc.; and undertaking research on issues of refugee protection and law.
Ara’a biggest achievement is that it has pioneered the concept of legal representation for refugees during the asylum process, and brought transparency and accountability to the same. Ara is the only organisation in the region to have a Letter of Understanding with UNHCR, which has institutionalised the right to legal representation for every asylum-seeker coming to India. Ara also lobbied successfully for UNHCR India to issue written reasons for rejection at the first instance. The success of this, Ara’s pilot project, has been held up by UNHCR Headquarters as an example to follow in other jurisdictions. The documentation Ara helps refugees access regularises their stay in India and gives them access to education, health, and additional government documentation. Thus, Ara’s services enable refugees to make effective asylum claims and put them on the path to rebuilding their lives while in exile. Ara also runs two other initiatives – one that provides specialised assistance for refugee women and children, particularly survivors of SGBV; and the other that serves as a research and policy wing, engaging with policymakers and other stakeholders to bring about broader change in India’s refugee policy.