BUENOS AIRES, Sep 17 2012 (IPS) - The Argentine government has opened legal aid centres in slum neighbourhoods, to provide a range of services, from assistance for immigrants and victims of domestic violence to dental care services.
“Many of the situations can be solved by picking up the telephone,” said Ariel Pereira, coordinator of the centre that is operating in Villa 1-11-14, a shantytown on the south side of Buenos Aires.
People living in the neighbourhood seek help from the centre in applying for pensions or identity documents, and filling out paperwork in the case of immigrants. They also file reports of domestic violence and application forms for social assistance payments or exemption from taxes or fees for certain services.
“In our centre, the people who come for help are mostly foreigners and battered women,” Pereira told IPS.
In both cases, the obstacle that leads them to turn to the centre is the police themselves, who often pay no attention to reports of domestic violence, considering them minor incidents, or simply because of discrimination.
To apply for residency in Argentina, immigrants, mainly from Bolivia and Paraguay, need to show proof of address, which has to be issued by the federal police after they verify where the applicant lives.
But “since this is a ‘villa’ (slum), the police don’t come here, and people get desperate because their appointment date is coming up (in the immigration office) and they don’t have the proof of address,” he said.
In such cases, the legal aid centre takes a hand in the matter, to get the police to issue the necessary document.
In the case of domestic violence victims, the police do not take down the women’s complaints, “sending them instead to the courts in the centre of the city, which makes things difficult for the women,” he said.
The legal aid centres, by contrast, offer the women support from lawyers, social assistants and psychologists, who inform them of their rights and, in case they file a legal complaint, help them every step of the way.
Of the total number of people who turn to the legal aid centres for help, 63 percent are women and 45 percent are foreigners of either sex.
Applying for a certificate of poverty
Some 15 people were waiting in line for assistance when IPS visited one of the legal aid centres set up in Villa 31, a long-time slum in the central neighbourhood of Retiro.
Three public employees are on duty from 10 AM to 4 PM every day in the legal aid centre, which is just two by six metres in size. It is next to a Catholic church in this poor neighbourhood which according to the 2009 census was home to just over 26,000 people, 51 percent of whom were from neighbouring countries, mainly Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, and 20 percent of whom from Argentina’s provinces.
IPS randomly interviewed seven of those waiting in line, and found that they were all immigrants who had come to apply for a “certificate of poverty” – the name given to the document they need to be exempted from a 300 peso (65 dollar) fee for applying for an Argentine identity card.
Also waiting in line were people seeking other documents, or people who wanted to talk to the lawyer, like Sandra, a 31-year-old Peruvian woman who needed legal aid for obtaining custody of her daughter.
“Her father doesn’t give me money, and I know he’s here (in Argentina),” said Sandra, who wants to visit her two other children who are living with a relative in Peru. But in order to take her seven-year-old daughter with her on the trip, she needs authorisation from the father, who has not shown up.
The first five legal aid centres were created in 2008 in Buenos Aires. These pilot centres found the need for offering a wider range of services. Another 33 were gradually opened, several of them in the provinces, Florencia Carignano, the head of the National Office for the Promotion and Strengthening of Access to Justice, told IPS.
“There are economic, social, cultural and geographic barriers standing in the way of everyone having access to the same rights. For that reason, rather than sporadic interventions, what we are seeking at the centre is to provide a stable state presence,” she said.
Once it was clear what kinds of assistance would be sought in the centres, Carignano’s office, which is under the Justice Ministry, signed cooperation agreements with other ministries and public offices, as well as with universities and foreign consulates.
In some cases, these different institutions supply their own staff to the legal aid centres where their services are needed.
“The paperwork of foreigners is often bogged down in their countries of origin,” Carignano said. “In these cases, we set up mobile units. Consuls come to take note of the needs, and in 15 days they come back with the papers.”
The centres also act as mediators, and they raise awareness – through pamphlets and conferences – on new laws that expand rights, for example, in the areas of immigration, mental health or domestic violence
The Justice Ministry’s office of Social Readaptation, which helps ex-convicts rejoin society, also has representatives in the centres.
In addition, young people from the Labour Ministry’s “More and Better Jobs” programme work as administrative employees at some of the centres. These youngsters are completing their secondary school studies and seeking to join the labour market.
The elderly seek help at the centres in applying for a pension, exemption from taxes or fees, or benefits to which they are entitled by law, but which they do not know how to claim. One example is the right to receive a free digital TV converter box.
Under an agreement with the Health Ministry, the centres also provide vaccines or dental care when there is no nearby public clinic offering such services.
According to a study by the National Office for the Promotion and Strengthening of Access to Justice, the legal aid centres have provided assistance in more than 152,000 cases since they were created.
Because the centres were overwhelmed by the number of people seeking help, nine mobile units were added this year, which go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. These mobile legal clinics demonstrate the success of the programme and how important it is for the justice system to reach out to those who are claiming their rights.
After service in the British SAS Regiment the author became a physician and then an orthopaedic surgeon.
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