Blog May 8, 2024

“What Does Justice Mean” for Lublanc Prieto Dávila, a Refugee Leader Supporting Access to Justice in Colombia

Front page of “What Does Justice Mean” for Lublanc Prieto Dávila, a Refugee Leader Supporting Access to Justice in Colombia
  • Justice
  • Pathfinders

Interview with Lublanc Prieto Dávila, Public Defender and Director General of Refugiados Unidos

The People Series is a set of interviews with a diverse set of leaders around the world committed to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16+, documenting their own justice journeys and priorities in the fight to make justice for all a reality.

These interviews took place between June and August of 2023 and have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What is your name and role?

Lublanc: My name is Lublanc Prieto Dávila, the Director General of Refugiados Unidos, an organization led by refugee women in Colombia. We provide legal services and community development—including psychosocial support, monitoring, capacity strengthening, and leadership empowerment—to the migrant and displaced populations located in Colombia. 

Q: What does justice mean to you, and why is it important?

Lublanc: For me, justice is a principle and fundamental value within society. It leads us to give people what they deserve more equitably within the context of rights and development. Justice is a social process where we can go beyond judgments and dogmatic or doctrinal positions to pursue a more humane and social approach where everyone can receive what they want.

Q: What can you share about your personal journey towards justice?

Lublanc: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer. My goal was to bring justice to the most vulnerable people. I have always wanted to be a pro bono lawyer, and I became a public defender in Venezuela. For me, justice has been an impetus to reach the populations who are most in need and those who do not truly receive justice. There are many barriers to achieving access to rights for people. 

As a Venezuelan refugee in Colombia, I decided to support migrating populations to access justice in Colombia and in other countries in the region by creating awareness of their rights and helping unlock access without discrimination or limitations as a result of being migrants, refugees, or displaced persons. 

Q. Why is access to justice important for migrants and refugees? 

Lublanc: For migrants, refugees, and displaced people, access to justice is a very complex process. Oftentimes, one of the main barriers is that they are not recognized as citizens within their host or transit countries. Additionally, institutions, private companies, and host communities assume that people who do not have the nationality of the country would not automatically be able to exercise their rights within the host country. However, this is due to a lack of knowledge and stigmatization towards mobile populations and refugees. 

The Colombian Constitution is one of the most comprehensive constitutions in the world. In Article 49 it recognizes the right of any person who lives within its national territory to access fundamental rights, equivalent to its citizens. In other words, the rights might be available, but due to the context, there are often limitations and barriers to accessing those rights.

Q. What challenges do migrants and refugees face when it comes to access to justice? 

Lublanc: One key barrier is the regularization of legal status and access to international protection, which is the backbone for effective integration and the development of these populations within host communities.  Even in countries like Colombia, it is one of the great risks and a significant barrier people face, despite some progress. Often, when migrants are unable to access their rights, they must appear before institutions to access direct legal aid, to have short- and long-term strategic litigation processes, or even to access international governing bodies to be able to enforce their rights within their host communities.

Another barrier is effective access to fundamental rights, such as the right to health, education, livelihood, and the right to a dignified life. Many times, people who apply for refugee status do not have access to job opportunities as they do not have authorization to work in their host countries. 

What happens to these people? What happens to the family unit if they do not have the opportunity to work and there is no benefit for them to remain in the country? How do they seek to secure effective access to rights and justice within a process that lasts years? How do they secure international protection or access processes through which they may later be recognized as refugees while living in legal limbo within the country? 

At a general level, even if you have pathways to regularization, it is difficult to access job opportunities due to complex processes from the private sector. Many believe that it is impossible to hire foreigners and that, as employers, they could face fines. Other employers believe that migrants and refugees do not have the necessary job skills. We have demonstrated throughout our work at Refugiados Unidos, and in other spaces that refugees and migrants are trained in trades and are prepared through education to work. We promote a more positive vision of refugee and migrant communities. They can and do contribute to host country development. 

There are other barriers, such as xenophobia and stigmatization, that are often promoted by institutions or state officials blaming migrants for difficulties within the country. For migrants and refugees, it is important to become more integrated within host communities. 

Q. How does Refugiados Unidos support migrant and refugee populations in accessing services like health and effective care? 

Lublanc: Today, we have people with cancer, diabetes, HIV, or other diseases who arrive in a condition of extreme vulnerability and often find it difficult to access health services and effective care. At Refugiados Unidos, we provide people with legal support to access their fundamental rights to life and health. When we receive people with chronic diseases who have been denied access to emergency care at hospitals, we take legal action. 

Here in Colombia, there is a regulatory framework and additional rulings from the Constitutional Court establishing protection of immediate and urgent care for people with high-risk diseases and whose lives may be at risk. Unfortunately, some hospitals still deny these services, so people come to us. Our first step is to evaluate the severity of their need. If their need is high-risk, we take immediate legal action called “guardianship action” (acción de tutela), a constitutional action we pursue in court. Almost always, we receive a positive decision from the court. If the decision is negative, however, we decide whether to appeal. If not, we go to the Constitutional Court to obtain an effective response.

Q. What motivates you to focus on migrant and refugee populations? 

Lublanc: This is my life. I have always wanted to help and every step I take, I am thinking about the impact we can have on migrants and refugees. How can we can change their lives? How we can provide them with tools to devise their own solutions? Often, they are not seen as human beings with capabilities, opportunities, qualities, and competencies. Sometimes, people only see migrating and displaced populations as people who need humanitarian aid. They do not see that we are creators of our own solutions and that we can change our history. This will only happen, however, if we empower people with tools and legal support, educate them on their rights, and show them how to access justice in Colombia even without a lawyer and how they can become spokespeople for their issues. We are equipping them with tools so that they are changing history and becoming leaders within their communities.

Q. As a non-governmental organization (NGO), what challenges do you face in supporting migrant and refugee populations? 

Lublanc: NGOs face many barriers today when it comes to access to justice or defending the rights of migrant populations. The first great barrier is that NGOs are considered enemies of the state. By taking legal actions, we are perceived as promoting action against the state, as if we are not supporting its public policy processes. But really, it’s not so. What we want is to knock on the doors of institutions and request effective access to people’s rights. Unfortunately, we often receive no response or negative responses. Many times, it is the ignorance of institutions about prevailing laws and regulations, international agreements, conventions, and rulings of the Constitutional Court that should inform their decisions. Unfortunately, they do not understand, so we have to go through the justice system and often use high-impact strategic litigation processes.

That is the first barrier we usually encounter: how institutions and the justice system see us within this process of defending rights and access to justice for migrants and refugees. The second major barrier is insufficient opportunities for migrants and refugees to inform new public policies within regulatory processes. We have to work at the local, national, and international levels to be able to impact public policies to effectively support the rights of migrants, refugees, and displaced and returnee populations, who are not often considered or seen within public policy construction processes. 

The third barrier is the stigma around civil society organizations led by refugees, for refugees. People believe that we create our own processes and diverge from the systems that exist in host countries. This is not the case. We are promoting integration: we are organizations with social objectives. We aim to contribute to the host country. Many times, this stigma means we are not invited into important spaces, and doors are not opened to us. We are often viewed negatively as enabling strategic litigation and complaints about the state. This is a misperception and a barrier that we are breaking down little by little. 

Lastly, one of the most important barriers we encounter every day is financing for our projects. Grassroots organizations have to knock on many doors, and oftentimes, the doors do not open to us because we are small organizations that have been growing slowly. Today, the sustainability and strength of our projects depend on effective financing and recognition from international donors, as well as governments who believe in us and can engage with us as true connectors and implementers.

Q. How can the global community address these challenges?

Lublanc: My message to the international community is that today you, too, can change history. 

There are many of us who work to create change in access to justice, improve access to fundamental rights, and advance the integration of migrant and refugee communities around the world. Many nationalities are migrating today for different reasons and through different processes. The international community can make a significant impact by directly providing support to organizations led by refugees. These organizations truly know the population’s needs, are connected with the population, and make direct and effective changes. They know what people’s needs are. 

They want to solve them, and they know how to solve them. This is how you can change history and be a part of advocacy and movements seeking to change legal processes, regulatory processes, and public policies. You can be a part of the solution: helping people access effective justice and sustainable development processes within their host communities.

This series explores the question, what does justice mean to people? In doing so, it unpacks the concept of people-centered justice. It aims to demonstrate that people-centered justice is a viable approach for closing the global justice gap and enabling the achievement of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

More in this series