Day in the life of a VLA: Charlie Holt

Published February 2013

Name: Charlie Holt

Office: Ecuador

Age: 25

Hometown: Bath, England

What made you volunteer as a VLA?

Two reasons: I volunteered in London for a group called Detention Action and had spent many weekends visiting detainees in immigration removal centers. There, I had become really angry with the injustices of the English system and determined to help promote the rights of refugees. As always I was motivated most by frustration at my own inability to do anything, so I did some research and I found the VLA opportunity at Asylum Access Ecuador (AAE). I was attracted most to the autonomy of the position – the fact that you are given responsibility over entire cases, and can monitor and control the way they progress.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?

I once penned a letter that led to my client being accepted to the refugee determination process (she had previously been wrongly rejected), my greatest accomplishments have been more abstract, such as empowering a family who had previously been completely ignorant of the system to take control of the process through training and to assert their rights (an important step as procedural rights are not exactly diligently observed here) and persuading a woman to file a complaint against her abusive husband to advance her own refugee case.

What was the greatest personal challenge you faced as a VLA?

Frustration and the feeling of complete powerlessness. It can be difficult to motivate yourself and it can be frustrating because you see the injustices and sometimes you cannot do anything about it. The greatest personal challenge is to keep working hard when the success rate is low – it is very unusual for example for the ministry to accept mistakes and concede an appeal, or for a policy to be changed because it conflicts with constitutional rights.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to asserting refugee rights in Ecuador?

In Ecuador there is a great constitution that covers many refugee rights. In theory, the application of refugee rights should be a very straightforward process. The problem is that officials at the ministry openly ignore parts of the Constitution. For example, I had a client who was 88% disabled and she was refused disability benefits because she is Colombian refugee. Refugees have the same rights as Ecuadorians according to the Constitution, which is very strict about discrimination. I spoke with someone at the Ministry and he said that the Constitution doesn’t work like that in practice. In this case, they claimed not to have the resources to extend these rights to everyone. Of course, constitutional rights are meant to be absolute and cannot be qualified by financial considerations, yet this was a policy instituted across the whole ministry. So there should definitely be more accountability of the Ministry staff and better implementation of the Constitution.

Describe a typical workday in Ecuador

It depends on the case you get. If you get an appeal [for a wrongly denied refugee status determination decision], you have just 3 days to file an appeal and it will take all day. If I didn’t have this kind of case, I would be working on cases that take longer, such as labor cases. We have consultations once or twice a week and you get as many cases as come in the door. As VLAs, I interview them and record all the information. VLAs must then decide if they are going to take the case or not. If the case is too complicated, we discuss and strategize with our supervisor, the Legal Services Coordinator. Depending on the case, we will then write letters to the Ministry, write appeals or extraordinary recourses, or hand the case to our strategic litigation team.

Tell us a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

One day, my colleague on reception came into our office and asked if an English speaker could attend to an incoming phone call. I said I could speak English, and picked up the phone. Unfortunately, nobody understands my English accent. As I talked, the person on the line said, “Can I please speak to somebody who speaks English!” I tried to tell him that I was in fact speaking English, but he didn’t understand.

What is your best memory of your experience in Ecuador and what would you normally do on the weekend?

It’s almost definitely going to be something involving food, I really am pathetic like that…
On the weekend I usually go to the bus station Friday night, catching an overnight bus to go to the beach, or the jungle, or nice towns or cities. I spend the weekend exploring. If we have to stay in Quito, there are nice things to do around the city as well.

How will this experience shape your future career plans/goals?

The direct interaction with clients of different cultures and languages helps you develop greater culture sensitivity. More importantly, the work here – where the focus is as much on international law as on domestic Ecuadorian law – leads to a broader international understanding on the implementation and promotion of human rights. That’s important for a career in international human rights law: to gain a comparative perspective on the problems inherent in the application of human rights, and to think internationally about the solutions.

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:

Oxford, BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics
Graduate Diploma in Law, City University in London

Interview conducted by AAE Communications Liason and VLA Thais Pinheiro