Using social media to reach thousands of young refugees and migrants with free legal advice

In Italy UNICEF teams up with volunteer lawyers to help young migrants navigate a complex system

Angela Hawke
Legal expert Paolo Torsello answering to UASC questions wih the U-Report on the Move team during the live chat
13 February 2020

Young refugees and migrants in Italy have many hurdles to overcome. As well as having to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture, they often endure stress caused by a traumatic past and an uncertain future, with many lacking information on their legal rights. With support from UNICEF’s Migrant and Refugee Response in Italy, experts are using digital technology to connect with young refugees and migrant and help them navigate their way through the legal system. And the free advice is tailored to real concerns expressed by the young people themselves.

The volunteer lawyers are ready, the camera is on, and the Facebook© live chat is underway, with an expected audience of 1,000 people and questions pouring in from young refugees and migrants across Italy. Some are worried about their legal rights once they turn 18 and are no longer treated as children under the law. Some ask what will happen to their permission to stay or their access to social services once they are officially adults. And many raise issues related to the 2019 Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, which has imposed new limits on the rights of young refugees and migrants.

This innovative approach to legal advice emerged from a poll of young refugee and migrant ‘U-Reporters’ aged 15 to 24 by ‘U-Report on the Move’ – a digital platform that lets them speak out on issues of concern. The poll revealed young people’s anxieties about a lack of information on legal procedures, on their own legal status and on how best to navigate their way through the legal system itself.

Live chat

It was clear after the adoption of the new Law that action was needed to combat fear and the spread of fake news and to clarify what had actually changed. The aim was to reach an audience that went far beyond the 3,000 young people actually registered as U-Reporters, to include those who were being stripped of their protection and who were facing life on the streets, with nowhere to turn.

A new approach to legal counselling

In response, the UNICEF team in Italy have organized four live one-hour Facebook chats in 2019 to provide young migrants and refugees reliable information on the new Law as well as family reunification in Europe.

Building on the issues raised by the poll, a list of frequently asked questions were prepared for the first chat in January 2019. This focused on the new law and resulting changes in permits to stay in Italy and the right to access basic services, such as health, education and welfare. A second chat in July looked more closely at the implications of the shift from the humanitarian protection document (‘Umanitaria’) to working permits under the new Law.

In each case, the questions asked mirrored the concerns raised by the U-Report poll:

  • “I have a permit to stay for work. But what happens when my contract ends?”
  • “I’ve been waiting for over a year for my commission date, I have no document. What can I do?”
  • “Can I have my degrees recognized in Italy to attend university?”
  •  “How many days do you have to appeal if your request for protection is rejected?”
  • “How many times can you appeal? And what happens if I always get rejected and can no longer appeal?”

One participant joined the chat via Messenger asking for basic information on the rights of a refugee in Italy and was contacted later by a lawyer for follow up. Two months later she contacted the platform once again for more precise information on how she could travel within Europe. And she has been in touch recently to refer a friend to the same lawyer.

U-Reporters in Italy

A married couple asked whether they could leave Italy for a short trip to their home countries with their child – who was born in Italy – as they held different types of permits of stay. They were worried that they would not be allowed back to Italy after their trip or guarantee the rights of their child during their journey. By joining the comment section of the live chat, the couple connected with the legal team, and established that the wife could travel to her husband’s home country under his permit.

Lawyers and law students from UNICEF partners, DLA Piper and Rome University III have been on hand to provide expert advice and follow-up. They have explained legal terms, enabling young refugees and migrants to better understand their own situation and communicate more effectively with the legal system. The four live chats have generated over 500 requests for information to date.

A new role for ‘U-Report on the Move’

Today, visitors to the U-Report on the Move platform can view a Facebook slide album that captures the key information – a valuable and permanent reference point that provides answers to the most common questions. All materials in Italian are being translated into Arabic, Bengali, English, French, and Tigrinya (widely spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea), while the chats themselves were translated simultaneously into English and French.

To date, around 9,000 people have been reached, either during the live chats themselves or as a result of the related videos and other materials – three times the number of registered U-Reporters. The initiative has also seen ‘U-Report on the Move’ evolve from a participation platform where young people share their views, to a powerful protection tool that can drive change by increasing credibility and building trust through one-to-one legal counselling.

The lawyers involved have also welcomed the opportunity to connect with a young audience and share their expertise.

“It's a great experience,” says Paolo Torsello, a lawyer from DLA Piper, “because when you have the possibility to chat with these guys, you can understand what they have faced and how important it is to just help and talk with them. It is something that goes beyond simple legal advice and lets you grow not only as a professional but above all as a person.”