An Englishman, an Italian, and an Icelander walk into a bar. As the committee of the University of Kent’s European Law Students’ Association (ELSA), every society event sounds like the beginning of a bad one-liner. However, the mere identity of ELSA revolves around being international: in a committee of five we share between us a total of seven passports. The larger network we belong to strings together more than 50,000 young lawyers and law students across 43 borders, all unified through our three common coals: pursuing the study of law through a broader international lens, and a commitment to guaranteeing human dignity and cultural diversity across borders.
We strive for these goals by offering a range of opportunities for international members in our home countries, such as reciprocal study visits, international conferences, and the Student Trainee Exchange Programme (STEP) where law students are exposed to short-term work for anything ranging from small law clinics to international corporations.
Yet these core objectives that underpin thousands of international projects and once unified law students on both sides of the iron curtain now appear to many as being an overtly political and slanted agenda.
As law students seeking to revel in the career prospects of the Post-Cold War era, we now face having to navigate a world deliberately seeking to shed its international character.
The question for us as law students caught by the current of political upheavals is whether we let it carry us where it may or seek to find our own path in the world.
Being International in an Internalising World
A legal education, we were told, would transform us into polyglots in a world where law was the language of international transactions in an increasingly internationalised marketplace. Seeing our degrees to a close, we now face a future where we don’t know if the laws we spent the past few years of our lives learning will stand the test of time or alternatively become nothing more than details of history. Entire modules worth of content could potentially become redundant.
In the aftermath of the referendum of June 23rd last year, the legal order we have spent the past three years studying appears on the brink of dismantlement and the path to the international careers in law we envisaged for ourselves eroding. London’s status as an international centre of law is uncertain and the English legal system’s prevalence as the jurisdiction of contracts poles apart appears at risk. As students of the University of Kent, the UK’s European University, we seemed pushed into an identity crisis. The question we were faced with was how to best prepare ourselves for our future careers as lawyers working in an uncertain and morphing legal landscape.
As we returned to university last autumn, the University of Kent assured its students that its commitment to international cooperation and learning remained as firm as ever, and signs dotted along the campus shout out the institution’s desire to maintain a sense of internationalisation. With the support of Kent Law School, the members of ELSA Kent made a decision not to wait for the clout of political uncertainty to dissipate and instead take an active role as students of trying to understand the new legal landscape unfolding.
Towards Student Initiative
Faced with the aforementioned questions, we as the ELSA Kent committee decided to face the tumultuous uncertainty head on and consider the future development of international law in an atmosphere of international upheaval starting with both the most controversial and important issue for young law students: migration.
Migration is international law’s most contentious issue, and it seems that any societal concern will soon be framed as a question regarding the movement of peoples. The law that governs migration determines the mobility of youths, the way our future careers will unravel and where they will take us. Amidst a wave of political slogans used as military chants, we felt it was important to evaluate with sincerity what the current fault lines of international migration law were and what our rights to move
and work elsewhere would be once we graduate.
Our work as a society of international law students over the past academic year has thus focused on trying to understand the invisible strings of migration law from the perspectives of the myriad of different people affected by it. We have listened to Sheona York, a solicitor at the pro-bono Kent Law Clinic, chronicle her work with child asylum seekers in Kent. We have met with Sir Julian Brazier, the MP for Canterbury, and asked him how he envisages the links between the UK and Europe after Brexit in 2019. We had a US Attorney fly in from Italy to describe her work for NATO in combating international human trafficking and the shadow channels of migration across the European continent.
The climax of our efforts to try to understand our position as aspiring international lawyers in the world will culminate in the 1st ELSA Summer Law School on Migration Law due to be held at the University of Kent in Canterbury from June 18th to the 25th. The Law School, the first of its kind in the UK, brings together some of the continent’s leading academics on Migration Law with a diverse group of young law students from places ranging from Aberdeen to Zurich.
The programme is particularly forward looking. Professor Roger Zetter of the University of Oxford will speak about the future trend of migration that climate change will unleash, and how the international community is prepared to respond to them. Professor Bernard Ryan of the University of Leicester will share his research on the rights to remain for the millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU once withdrawal from the Union is complete. Finally, His Excellency Ledi Bianku of the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg’s leading expert on asylum law and human rights law, will address the participants.
The word ‘migration’ alone appears to provoke a strong gut reaction in almost any person you come across. On a nearly daily basis it is splattered across newspaper headlines in black ink, and everyone has got an opinion on it. The law on migration underpins our global economic system, it determines our motility in the marketplace, the expanse of businesses, and the reach of an individual beyond the politically drawn border. Yet our aim with our Summer Law School is to remove it from the context of political discourse and try to assess our legal rights and the unfolding legal landscape critically and objectively. This is so we can be prepared for the future that awaits us and as far as we can steer our career paths until the political fog has cleared.
Today’s youth are the first generation since the Industrial Revolution to face poorer career prospects than that of their parents. Yet our reaction appears to be disenchantment rather than empowerment, and the critical decisions of recent elections have been taken without the crucial youth vote. As law students with an unapologetically international mind-set and a determination to study law, we have always strived to take every opportunity available and make the most of it.
By taking on the issues surrounding migration head on, armed with the knowledge of experts, practitioners and our own persistence, we hope to afford the next generation of international lawyers a chance to start their careers. Whether they’re a student from Kent, a founder of an NGO or a seasoned doctorate candidate, everyone will come away with the capacity to help unravel the knot that is migration law, and we as students will be one step closer to knowing what the world of our careers will look like.