Maltese lawyer wins top UN refugee award for aiding Mediterranean boat people

Katrine Camilleri with a Congolese refugee

18 September 2007 – A Maltese lawyer who has fought for the rights of boat people fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea, including victims of trauma or torture and survivors of sexual and gender based violence, sometimes in the face of great danger to herself, today won the most prestigious United Nations refugee award.

Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), was given the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award for her “tireless efforts” to lobby and advocate for refugees. “We are impressed by the political courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta,” the Nansen Refugee Award Committee said.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate incidents and in April, arsonists set fire to Ms. Camilleri’s car and her front door, terrifying her family trapped inside. The attacks shocked Maltese society and drew wide condemnation, including from the government.

The incident, she said, has shattered her own two children’s sense of invulnerability, but has not altered her desire to help asylum seekers risking their lives in flimsy boats to reach safety.

“I'm always impressed by how much hope they have and how much capacity in a sense, not only to keep hoping against hope, but to really make things happen,” she told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since 1997, Ms. Camilleri has provided legal advice to hundreds of persons kept in administrative detention centres in Malta, focusing her efforts on the most vulnerable.

“By making the award to Dr. Camilleri for her civic courage and for the inspiring example set by her actions, the Nansen Refugee Award Committee would like to honour all individuals who are working to improve the well-being of refugees,” the citation said.

“Katrine Camilleri has worked courageously to protect refugees and asylum seekers,” High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres noted. “Dr. Camilleri and JRS are key partners in helping UNHCR to fulfill its goal of assisting governments to identify refugees caught in migratory movements and responding to their needs.”

The Nansen Refugee Award consists of a commemorative medal and a $100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to support a refugee project of the laureate’s choice. Mr. Guterres will present the award to Ms. Camilleri on 1 October.

After first helping to prevent the deportation of a Libyan asylum seeker who risked persecution if returned home, Ms. Camilleri’s interest grew and in 1997 she started to work with the Malta office of JRS, first as a volunteer, then part-time and eventually full-time. JRS became the first organization to offer a professional legal service on a regular basis to detainees.

In 2002, the number of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in Malta by boat increased sharply, a problem faced by European countries around the Mediterranean. Believing asylum seekers in detention to be in the greatest need, JRS shifted its focus increasingly to the detention centres.

Ms. Camilleri leads the JRS Malta legal team of two lawyers and two case workers who, apart from handling asylum claims, challenges detention in individual cases and monitors the treatment of those in the centres. Conscious of the need for more lawyers trained in refugee law, she has helped set up a study unit for law students at the University of Malta in which students take cases, thus coming into contact with asylum seekers.

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