Our Story


Asylum Access started in the apartment of our founder, Emily Arnold-Fernández, as a collective of passionate human rights lawyers who saw an opportunity for change. The goal: a world where forcibly displaced people can access their rights and rebuild their lives, wherever they find themselves. We have grown to become a global leader in advancing refugee rights, with organizations and initiatives around the world. In our early stages, we developed a rights-based approach that remains central to our work today. However, our theory of change has changed over time, as our understanding of the problem and realities faced by our clients evolved. 

This is the story of our progress as an organization – from UN policy advisor to local legal aid provider and, finally, advocacy partner for the movement toward a global refugee response system that is led by refugees themselves.

2005-2007: Building a Rights-based Model

In 2005, a group of human rights lawyers with decades of experience in refugee and international law came together in San Francisco, California, USA around their frustration with the existing global asylum system. They saw that forcibly displaced people who flee human rights violations in their home countries almost always experience further violations in the countries that should provide safe haven. These lawyers saw an opportunity to rethink the way international actors approach refugee response and, working in a small apartment on desks improvised from coffee tables and TV trays, they formed Asylum Access to help shape the growing movement of refugee legal aid organizations in the global south. 

By 2007, Asylum Access had already become an influential voice in global refugee response. At the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Conference organized on behalf of an NGO-UNHCR working group, then-Asylum Access Policy Director Michael Kagan presented the initial draft for what would become the Nairobi Code, an ethical standard for organizations providing legal aid to forcibly displaced people. The Nairobi Code remains in place today.

2007-2014: Scaling a Rights-based Approach

In 2007, Asylum Access established its first national organizations in Ecuador and Thailand. In 2009, we expanded and established a presence in Tanzania. With these new organizations, Asylum Access began conducting research locally and providing direct legal services to assist forcibly displaced people and people seeking asylum in navigating the asylum process. 

Our frequent and rights-based legal empowerment engagement with clients enhanced our ability to advocate for refugees’ human rights and identify meaningful national and local policy changes because it ensured we were advocating for outcomes of importance to the refugee community. Through this work, Asylum Access grew to pursue advocacy campaigns around national and local policies in the countries where we work, which led to expanded rights and access for forcibly displaced people beyond our client base. We contributed to numerous policy wins, including the issuance of written reasons for asylum rejections in Tanzania (increasing the likelihood of refugee recognition), the passing of the Human Mobility Law to increase refugee protections in Ecuador, and the release of refugee children from detention without bail in Thailand.

2014-2019: Expanding for Greater Global Impact

In 2014 and 2015, Asylum Access added new national organizations in Malaysia and Mexico, growing our family of organizations to include five countries. Our advocacy efforts at the national level shifted to mirror this development and led to policy wins in new national and local contexts, such as the Mexican Congress’ unanimous vote to end the detention of migrant children in 2020 and the Thai government’s decision in 2019 to implement its own asylum process to grant legal status for refugees in the country for the very first time. Additionally, in partnership with local civil society organizations and private businesses, we helped launch the Hospitality Route in Mexico, a platform for refugees to access their rights and fully integrate into the economic, social and cultural life of their new home. 

A couple years after our expansion we identified opportunities to deepen our impact in a few key countries and transition some of our work to other local actors. This shift was in line with Asylum Access’ constant commitment to evaluating impact strategies. In 2018, Asylum Access Tanzania became Dignity Kwanza, a fully local and independent organization, and Asylum Access Ecuador transitioned its caseload to public defenders and civil society partners.

Informed by our experience in an array of national contexts, during this period we also identified the universal value of work rights protections for forcibly displaced people across countries and launched the Refugee Work Rights campaign, which includes an annual report on refugee work rights globally and a work rights scorecard for each country. Fighting for refugee work rights has since become a central pillar of our global advocacy effort.

2019-present: Establishing a Precedent of Refugee Leadership

In 2019, we made a commitment to center and support refugee leadership, and fight for a refugee response system that values and supports the work of refugee-led organizations (RLOs). Currently, many leaders in the international humanitarian system often sit – literally and figuratively – far from the experience of displacement, and as a result their approaches often ignore community needs that are difficult to recognize. In comparison, all over the world, RLOs call upon their experience, community connections, and resilience to fill gaps left by the international community, offering unparalleled services in refugee response. 

To address the gap in support for RLOs, we co-founded the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative, a coalition effort focused on resourcing and positioning refugee-led organizations to influence refugee response. In addition to our work as a partner in the movement toward a refugee-led refugee response system, we continue to serve clients through our Malaysia, Mexico and Thailand organizations and fight for meaningful partnerships and policy change where we work.

Looking Forward: 

Asylum Access continues advocating and supporting forcibly displaced individuals and communities as they reclaim their rights, agency, and power. We are aware of how structural racism and bias have led to the exclusion of these groups from strategy development and decision-making processes. We believe we have a duty to dismantle the structures that enable this exclusion – in the sector and within our organization. 
Moving forward, we aim to continue shifting the mindset of people in power and foster deep and honest conversations around refugee leadership. We continue to work to dismantle decades of colonialism, fight for self-representation, and build intersectional alliances to demand human rights for all forcibly displaced people.