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  • Writer's pictureSurvive Law

Interning with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UN Refugee Agency logo

Last year the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Strasbourg, France received its first Australian intern. That lucky little devil was me.

As an intern, I never knew if my week would involve meetings with ambassadors, attending Parliamentary Assembly sessions (and listening to speeches from the President of Palestine, or the Prime Minister of Britain), working on projects on stateless people, asylum-seekers, or trafficked children, or merely begging my colleagues to tell me more about their missions to Kenya, Congo, Saudi-Arabia or Chad.

Working with UNHCR

UNHCR’s office in Strasbourg works with the European Institutions to increase the protection of stateless people, refugees, and asylum seekers in Europe. I particularly enjoyed working on issues involving the European Court on Human Rights and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The work was varied and interesting and involved a lot of reporting to UNHCR.

Some of my tasks included:

  • Assisting in the preparation of UNHCR third-party interventions before the Court, including detailed research on the Court’s case-law on detention

  • Writing briefing notes on issues such as the situation in Libya/Syria and the large scale arrivals of asylum-seekers on European shores

  • Translating from French to English and checking the (excellent) English of my colleagues who were from the Congo, Germany, Belgium and France

  • Researching the situation in various countries to understand the risk of persecution faced by asylum-seekers if they were returned to those countries

  • Attending and reporting on meetings and debates of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe bodies on issues of concern to UNHCR

  • Writing a paper on the potential establishment of an offshore European asylum processing system, which was presented to UNHCR at the end of my internship

But don't get me wrong, it’s not all the hard slog I'm making it out to be. We also found the time to guess the colour of M&Ms with our eyes closed, and debate whether “Do you swim well? You live on an Island” is an appropriate question for Europeans to ask Australians.

Life at the United Nations

Working at the UN was exciting. Occasionally protestors would storm the building and we would have to seek refuge in our offices! When important people were speaking at the European Institutions, our buildings were protected by riot squads and police armed with machine guns.

I am a little ashamed to admit that even at the end of my internship I still found it exciting to go through the metal security gates at the entry to each building, with my little UNHCR “go everywhere” pass which bore my name, photo and relation to UNHCR.

It was fantastic to work in a different country and to work with colleagues of various nationalities. They were inspiring and interesting and happy to share their experiences working for different UN bodies around the world.

Why Intern with the United Nations

One of the best things I gained from my internship was the realisation that working in human rights is achievable. At uni, I knew I wanted to work in human rights, but hadn’t been able to clarify what this actually meant. Sydney was too far away from where my path lay, and the opportunities in this field were unclear.

The internship taught me about many human rights issues and introduced me to many international lawyers who have become my friends and who have helped me take my career to the next level. I value these people and their input enormously.

Want to work in human rights? Go do it!

If you’re keen to work in human rights but aren’t sure how to get there – I understand how you’re feeling. My suggestion is to apply, apply, apply – and don’t be afraid to live overseas. There are so many opportunities globally, you’ve just got to go looking for them!

I arrived at UNHCR through a combination of hard work and luck. When I was on exchange in Europe, I went to a conference on terrorism and was lucky to meet a lawyer who put me in contact with UNHCR.

I would encourage anyone wanting an international career to improve his or her foreign language skills. I’ve studied in France, Chile and Australia and speak French, Spanish and English. My UNHCR colleagues were bi-lingual, tri-lingual, and if I knew the word for 5-lingual I would be able to mention that that one colleague speaks 5 languages!

Even if you’re not planning on going overseas any time soon, there are plenty of fantastic volunteer organisations you can gain experience with here at home.

I loved my internship and was thrilled with the experience. Working in an international organisation was an experience I will never forget. It was everything I had hoped and more, and I’m now convinced I will be a human rights lawyer. Next week I’ll be returning to Europe (this time to Italy and Kosovo) to follow that career path.

Go live that dream!

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