Sonia Burgess, in memoriam: As one of the most important human rights attorneys to ever practice immigration law, Burgess helped pioneer the fight for refugee justice in ways that foreshadowed today’s Syrian refugee crisis. Burgess argued several seminal cases before the European Court of Human Rights, and before courts in North America and the United Kingdom. In 1991, Burgess represented five Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers before the ECHR in Vilvarajah and Others v. The United Kingdom. The Tamil are a minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka who have faced oppression from the Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka gained independence from the U.K. in 1948. After seeking asylum in the U.K., the Tamil refugees were returned from Britain to Sri Lanka, thereby exposing them to grave harm. While the ECHR ruled that England did no wrong in returning the refugees to the country that harmed them, the case led to a landmark change in British law, allowing asylum-seekers to appeal forced removal.
Frequently misgendered even in death, Burgess often had no other recourse after transitioning than to use the name assigned to her at birth in her cases pending in courts because of differing international laws pertaining to when and how legal name changes can be executed and vital records updated for transgender people. As The Advocate reported in 2011, Burgess was murdered in October 2010 by Nina Kanagasingham, who pushed Burgess in front of a subway train in full view of witnesses. Kanagasingham, a fellow trans woman, was Burgess's friend. The case shocked Burgess’s loved ones, as Burgess had befriended Kanagasingham, who was originally from Sri Lanka, and helped Kanagasingham through her transition. According to the Daily Mail, Kanagasingham was convicted of manslaughter in light of her diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and sentenced to life imprisonment with eligibility for parole after seven years.