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Internship Report: Working as ‘Protection Intern’ with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

In 2014, I undertook a six month internship with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at their field office in Cape Town. The following outlines the various responsibilities and experiences that I had in my role as ‘Protection Intern’.

Throughout my internship I was primarily responsible for the co-ordination and organization of refugee reception sessions held weekly at the Scalabrini Centre.  During these ‘intakes’ I conducted short interviews with the aim of assessing the protection needs of clients and appropriately advising them. This involved referring clients on to partner organization such as the Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC) – when the client presented social or financial needs, or to the University of Cape Town (UCT) Law Clinic – when the client presented legal challenges. Where serious protection needs were identified, I scheduled and conducted further Protection Needs Assessment interviews in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of both the client’s refugee claim as well as their protection challenges in South Africa. In May, I joined the UNHCR Cape Town staff on a refugee reception field mission to Strand in order to gain a broader assessment of refugee protection needs outside of the Cape Town metropolitan. I was also responsible for updating the refugee reception database which included tracking and recording any follow-up action that needed to be taken following the weekly sessions.

Through these refugee reception interviews I identified a number of cases that met the criteria for resettlement. As such, I have gained experience writing comprehensive resettlement referrals and witnessing the progress of such cases through the resettlement process.

At the beginning of my internship, I assisted with conducting interviews at the Cape Town Refugee Centre to assess whether individual clients with asylum seeker permits were eligible for financial social assistance offered by the centre. The purpose of these interviews was to establish whether the individual clients had legitimate refugee claims according to the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore, whether or not they were persons of concern to the UNHCR and qualified for assistance.

Another key area of responsibility was my activity relating to the monitoring and tracking of xenophobic-related incidents in the Western Cape. Along with my protection colleagues, we conducted a number of field missions where we interviewed affected individuals and on some occasions visited the sites of conflict. This required close liaison with community leaders and other community members who alerted us to specific incidents of xenophobic attacks. I was then responsible for updating the xenophobic database that is run from the Cape Town office with the information that was collected on site.

During my internship I acted as the parliamentary liaison representative for the UNHCR Cape Town Office on a number of occasions. This involved attending and observing meetings of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs and thereby monitoring governmental discussions on refugee affairs.

Throughout my time spent at the UNHCR I was involved with the organization of a number of different events, training sessions and workshops. In June, I assisted with the organisation of the Cape Town ‘World Refugee Day’ celebrations – an internationally recognized event dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. In July, I was involved with the planning and coordinating of an ‘Interpreters Training Workshop’ and in August I assisted with the organization of a ‘Resettlement Case Identification Workshop’ for implementing partners, both hosted by the UNHCR. In August and September I was responsible for managing the budget for the RSC Africa circuit ride mission to Cape Town.

Furthermore, I attended and helped to coordinate various meetings held by Cape Town refugee organizations as well as the UNHCR throughout my internship. Some highlights include: the World Humanitarian Summit preparation meeting; a meeting with delegates from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM) in the United States; and regular meetings with the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum (WCRMF) and the UNHCR Implementing Partners (IPs). These meetings allowed me to gain knowledge and understanding of what is happening and what type of work is being done in the greater refugee community. I was also able to gain access to a wide network of refugee-related individuals and organisations.

In July I attended the ‘Sustained Advocacy for Empowered Refugees’ (SAFER) training course, hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Refugee Rights Unit. This provided me with a thorough training in Refugee Rights and the various mechanisms available for refugees to access these rights in the Western Cape. In August I also attended a ‘Trafficking in Persons’ seminar hosted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). This seminar gave me a brief background of the South African Trafficking in Persons Act (2013) as well as information on how to identify and respond to victims of trafficking.

On reflection, this internship provided me with a host of experiences which challenged me in many ways. Highlights included the exposure gained during one-on-one interviews with refugee clients and the broadening of my networks in the field, within the greater Cape Town region. Working with refugees and refugee issues ultimately informed my decision to undertake a masters degree focusing on ‘Migration and Displacement’ and I look forward to continuing my work in this field as I embark upon my career.

About the author

Claire McDonald

Claire McDonald is currently a Masters student studying Migration and Displacement at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg. She has a firm background in social science research and writing, having completed her undergraduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and her honours degree in Justice and Transformation, both at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Her professional experience includes almost two years work as the lead research assistant for a research organisation based at UCT – the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI). In 2014 she completed an internship with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Claire has since spent time travelling solo through parts of South America as well as Spain and Portugal.

Upon finishing her Master’s degree, Claire hopes to continue her career in the field of social justice, working specifically in South Africa after gaining experience working abroad.

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