IHRP Alumni Spotlight: Andrew Brouwer

Per Kraut (3L)

Andrew Brouwer (centre), Senior Counsel in Refugee Law at Legal Aid Ontario, at a recent press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa with the IHRP. Photography by Yolanda Song. 

Andrew Brouwer is Legal Aid Ontario’s Senior Counsel in Refugee Law. He leads the organization’s refugee law test case program which is geared to improving access to justice for vulnerable non-citizens and refugees. Andrew appears before all levels of court and immigration tribunal, including the Supreme Court of Canada and United Nations Treaty Bodies, and frequently testifies before Parliamentary committees studying immigration and refugee legislation. 

Andrew is also Vice President of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, having previously co-chaired its Litigation and Advocacy committees. He advises the Canadian Council for Refugees in addition to working with the IHRP on their immigration detention projects. Andrew has written and advocated on issues relating to statelessness, interdiction, refugee protection and immigration detention. He is currently representing the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches in their constitutional challenge to the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement. 

1. As a student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, you were an IHRP summer fellow at the UNHCR. How would you describe that experience?

I spent a fascinating summer in the legal department at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, drafting proposed Guidelines on state responsibilities in the refugee interdiction context. While I had previously incorporated international human rights principles through my involvement in policy advocacy in Canada, I had never looked at these issues from an international, inter-state perspective. At UNHCR, I had the opportunity to dig into what international human rights, refugee and maritime law had to say about a state’s obligations to the asylum seekers they encounter at sea or in airport transit zones. 

I was privileged to work with some of the leading thinkers in international refugee law, and to glimpse the inner workings and realpolitik of this global institution in its interactions with the countries that form its executive committee, including Canada. I also worked with brilliant interns from law schools around the world who were placed at the various human rights bodies headquartered in Geneva. For a refugee law nerd like me, it was a heady experience. 

2. How did your time as an IHRP summer fellow shape your academic and personal interests, as well as the course of your career?

The IHRP fellowship at UNHCR give me a firsthand look at how and why states were getting away with circumventing their refugee protection obligations, as well as some of the gaps in the international human rights and refugee protection regime. These obligations arguably only kick in when an asylum seeker or refugee claimant arrives at the frontier. By stopping migrant ships at sea or barring potential refugee claimants from boarding flights to our territories, states are able to sidestep their responsibilities. The experience was an eye opener, but it also served to sharpen my critique and spike my commitment to finding ways to resist and oppose barriers to protection for refugees. It’s an issue that has motivated much of my refugee advocacy work ever since, allowing me to seek out opportunities to raise the issue in various fora, including in the courts in the context of litigation challenging the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.

3. What drove you to your current work and what were your initial steps following law school?

In retrospect, it seems like human rights and social justice have been a lifelong focus. My parents were immigrants from the Netherlands so I grew up hearing stories about the Nazi occupation of Holland, where my dad was part of the Resistance. In Grade 7, I learned about Apartheid in South Africa and the repression and imprisonment of liberation leaders like Nelson Mandela. These stories made a huge impression on me. When I was in my twenties, I taught English to injured workers in Toronto, some of whom were refugees. I was deeply inspired by their stories. This led me to get involved in the refugee rights movement, and that was the start of my trajectory in refugee law. 

By the time I began my legal studies, I had been engaged in refugee solidarity and public policy advocacy for several years. For me, law school was a place to gain tools to become a more effective advocate for refugees. After law school and then articling with a union-side labour law firm, I started practicing refugee law with Barbara Jackman and a couple of friends. My intention was to do it for a short time and then return to macro-policy work with an NGO. However, it turned out that representing refugees is incredibly fulfilling; more so, for me, than policy work alone. Continuing to practice ever since, I have remained very involved with NGOs doing policy advocacy work.  

4. You have recently collaborated with the IHRP for our project on immigration detention in Canada. What motivated you to get involved with the IHRP again and what has that experience been like?

It has been a wonderfully rewarding experience. I have worked with both the current director, Samer Muscati, and his predecessor, Renu Mandhane, and a variety of brilliant and passionate UofT Law students on reports and advocacy regarding immigration detention of children and the mentally ill. 

I love working with the IHRP because they have been able to dig into these policy issues at a level that, as a practitioner, I just don’t have the time or resources to do myself. Even more, the energy, brilliance and passion brought to these projects by the law students themselves has been incredibly rewarding and inspiring. 

5. What have been some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work as a refugee lawyer?

The stakes can’t get much higher than they are in refugee law. Refugee lawyers deal daily with issues related to life and death, torture, persecution, detention, family unification or separation, and national security. Of course, the challenges and rewards are likewise very high. Losing a case when the result is going to be deportation to a real risk of persecution is devastating. Explaining to a mother that her application to sponsor her child has been refused, and she has little chance to succeed on an appeal, is an almost impossible task. 

At the same time, calling a client facing imminent deportation to tell them you have won them a last minute stay of removal from the Federal Court is a highlight of the job. As is accompanying a client to the airport to meet the spouse and child for whom they have been waiting for seven years. 

Refugee law is full of these extreme ups and downs. But the opportunity to work in solidarity and community with people of so many different backgrounds and perspectives, and to have a real impact on the lives of vulnerable people, is incredibly rewarding. I cannot think of a better use for a law degree.

6. Do you have any advice for students interested in following a similar path?

Get involved now! Don’t wait till you are done law school – become engaged while you are still a student so that you can make connections, learn, and explore whether this area is right for you. There are so many ways to participate in refugee law as a student--by enrolling in one of the UofT Law programs such as IHRP, the Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, Downtown Legal Services or Pro Bono Students Canada; by joining a student chapter of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers; or by volunteering with an advocacy organization like Amnesty International or No One Is Illegal, or even one of the refugee law offices in Toronto.