Ashley Hart, a student at WMU- Cooley Law School’s Tampa Bay campus, recently accepted an externship within the legal department for the U.S. Protection team of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). From the small farm town of Plant City, Florida, Hart will use the skills she has learned while at WMU-Cooley to help protect the rights and futures of refugees including those individuals forcibly displaced from their communities, and stateless people.
UNHCR is a global organization dedicated to ensuring that all people have the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge, having fled violence, persecution, war or disaster at home. Since 1950, the organization has faced multiple crises on several continents, and provided assistance to refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced and stateless people.
Hart’s responsibilities will include assisting with the U.S. asylum process and UNHCR’s role to asylum seekers and/or their attorneys; monitoring and analyzing proposed legislation and regulations affecting refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless individuals; and drafting internal memoranda on U.S. policy and practice and compliance with international refugee and human rights law.
She will also be assisting in the preparation of amicus briefs before the Board of Immigration Appeals, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as helping with monitoring missions. Additionally, Hart will attend Congressional hearings addressing refugee and asylum issues, and support training activities in the U.S. and Caribbean.
Hart’s externship comes at time in which the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. According to UNHCR’s website, 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home, and among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The organization states that nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.
Hart learned about the externship opportunity through Sam Badawi, owner of Badawi Law, where she was working on asylum applications and other immigration forms at the time. After hearing of Hart’s interest in human rights, Badawi told her about a UNHCR webinar and suggested that she attend.
“As soon as the webinar was over, I began doing research about the UNHCR and the things they are involved in. With the current state of refugee policy, I believe this is the time to fight for people who truly need it,” Hart said.
Human rights advocacy is a passion Hart has had for many years now. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in anthropology, studying various aspects of humans within past and present societies, and the norms and values of different cultures.
“When I started law school, I knew that I wanted to do something in human rights. I had a passion for different cultures and really wanted to do something with human trafficking. I thought that with a law degree, I would be able to help victims the most,” said Hart.
Hart’s community involvement further showcases her commitment to support and protect the rights of all people. She serves as the WMU-Cooley student chapter president of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers and is a member of the American Bar Association’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. She is also advocating for full funding for malaria outreach as a council representative of Nothing But Nets in collaboration with the United Nations Association of the United States of America, Tampa Bay chapter.
Shortly after starting law school, Hart began working with Redefining Refugee, a local safe house for teenage girls who have been trafficked. She completed seminars held by the Department of Children Services in human trafficking through the organization. Additionally, Hart has volunteered with Trinity Café, a local organization that works to meet the needs of the homeless, hungry and working poor in the community. She also recently completed a backpack drive which supplied 23 area students with backpacks and back-to-school supplies.