Day in the Life of a VLA- Milena Castellnou

Name: Milena Castellnou

Office: Ecuador

Age: 25

Hometown: Grenoble, France

What made you volunteer as a VLA?

I wanted to get some more practical experience and I was really interested in refugee law. I was interested in the Colombian conflict and its consequences in terms of refugee displacement.

What was your greatest accomplishment as a VLA?

Toward the end of my experience I started working more on detention cases, which I found very interesting but took up a lot of my time and energy. My greatest accomplishment in this matter was securing the release and non-execution of a detention order for a Colombian client after he had been detained for over a month.

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

Sometimes it can be frustrating for VLAs because strategic litigation processes take so long, and you never get to see a result of a case or get to finish working on it – it’s always ongoing. However, I am convinced that our work will have a long-term positive impact on refugee rights in Ecuador. And there have also been some fulfilling moments, for example when I sent the petition to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights after working on it for weeks.

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

From what I’ve been able to observe, I think that the problem in Ecuador does not come from the laws – for example Ecuador ratified the majority of the international human rights treaties and its constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. However, the laws are rarely applied and I think that the greatest problem comes from the system itself – and the fact that most of the court clerks and judges lack knowledge of and willingness to realize refugee rights. There is a lot of discrimination and refugees are unfortunately associated with criminals, even among legal actors.

Describe a typical workday in Ecuador.

At 9am I get to work. I work in strategic litigation so there is no a typical work day or daily routine like [my colleagues in] the legal services department. My work depends a lot on the advancement of the cases we manage. We have to constantly check to see if we have received any notification from the courts so that we may move forward quickly with urgent cases. Very often, I go to the courts in the morning and talk to the court clerks and judges to inquire about my cases and insist on their development, or present new documents. The rest of the time I prepare documents for the courts, conduct investigations/research regarding the cases, or work on the international petitions, for example submissions to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

The biggest cultural shock was the Ecuadorean justice system as it is very different from European ones. For example, here you constantly have to go to the courts and insist on the advancement of your case, otherwise it will not move forward. You have to go and convince the court clerks and the judge to take on the case and advocate regarding the content of the case in order to have any hope of getting a positive opinion. If you don’t speak to the judge, you can almost be sure that your case will not have a positive result, which says a lot about the system because most refugees don’t have any legal support and for those who do, it requires a lot of time and effort to advocate for a case.

What was one resource you needed that Asylum Access didn’t have?

The limited number of staff has proven to be a challenge in terms of our workload and levels of stress. However, because of this I have been able to take on a lot of responsibility and have an incredible learning experience, which I would not have been able to get anywhere else.
What is your best memory of your experience in Ecuador?

The month of March in general was memorable for me because I was starting to feel comfortable and at home in Ecuador (I arrived in January). I really enjoyed this month because I traveled almost every weekend and started really discovering the country, especially the beach, which makes a big difference after a hard week of work.

Describe a typical weekend off in Ecuador.

I like to travel a lot and I am trying to take advantage of the fact that I’m in Ecuador, which is such a beautiful country to discover. I regularly travel to the beach, the mountains or other regions of Ecuador. If I stay in Quito, I like to go out with friends in the evening.

What is your favourite way to de-stress while in Ecuador?

I like to go swimming after work and during weekends in the swimming pool at the Colegio Benalcazar (which also has a jacuzzi!). I also like to go out and dance with friends.

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

Before this experience, I was interested in refugee rights but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work further in this role. After 6 months as a VLA in Ecuador, I am convinced that I want to continue to work for refugee rights.

What type of law did you practice before volunteering with Asylum Access?

I worked in international criminal law at the Human Rights Law Centre of the University of Nottingham.

Schools Attended and Degrees Conferred:

Science Po Grenoble, France, BA in Political Science and International Relations, Master’s degree in Latin American Studies
University of Nottingham, UK, LLM in Public International Law
Interview by Asylum Access Ecuador Policy Advocate Intern and Communications Liaison Adina Appelbaum.