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Working as a Protection Associate at UNHCR [Interview]

Working in refugee contexts can be both challenging and rewarding. A lot of recent graduates or current students in the fields of humanitarian action and human rights aspire to fill a position at an international organization or a UN agency in the field of migration and asylum to help vulnerable people and defend a cause they strongly believe in.

Rahma Henchiri has been working with refugees for the past 5 years and is currently employed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as an RSD / Protection Associate. In this brief interview, she will be talking about the daily life of a protection worker at UNHCR to give insight to all aspiring potential candidates for a similar position.

Hi Rahma! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Rahma and I like to present myself as a passionate humanitarian worker, dedicated to protection work in the field of asylum and refugees, among other relevant areas. My journey started in refugee camps in Greece from the very first days of the “migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey – Greece). I gained my experience through working with different international and local organizations in Greece before moving to other countries. I have been working with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency for nearly two years now in two different duty stations. My main focus currently is on asylum law, child protection and SGBV within the refugee communities.

Protection is also referred to as the legal unit of UNHCR; and it is the core work of the organization. People working in protection usually have a legal background and use their knowledge and experience to apply refugee law and humanitarian law instruments in every day issues related to refugees.

Can you describe a typical day or week at work?

The main thing one needs to remember about being a protection associate is that it is divided into two parts. The biggest part is field work and the rest is office work and reporting, which most people who have already worked in the field would not be very thrilled about.

Let’s first talk about field work. Not only is it my favorite part of my job, but it is also the most challenging and surprising. As a protection field worker with UNHCR, you are always at the forefront. You are most of the time the first person that newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers meet, especially in the case of a boat rescue. You are there, most of the time on your own, and you are the only source of knowledge, and often hope, for new arrivals. You meet the community, together or individually, you give them information on who you are and what your title means. Persons of Concern to UNHCR (POCs) always need to fully understand what each person is doing, or rather what each person and each organization can provide them with. You are the ambassador of UNHCR; and depending on your location or duty station, you are required to explain in details what UNHCR does and does not in that specific context, what it can provide and what it cannot. It is extremely important to be clear, direct and honest from the very first encounter with the people, otherwise it will sooner or later come back to bite you! However, setting expectations properly is a skill that one can work on with time.

In the first encounter, the core of the message is reassuring people to put it in simple words, reassuring those who have left countries at war and human rights violations that they are now (finally) at a safe place, they have found peace and protection. Protection is the most used word in the protection unit. And although, when translated to certain languages, it sounds a little strange, you still find yourself using it to refer to everything that UNHCR does. It becomes a second nature!

Your main duty in working with new arrivals is counselling on asylum with a focus on other protection activities. A lot of the people who reach your location, having passed by a number of other countries beforehand and having lived atrocious experiences during their journey, might not even understand what asylum means, which is another thing a protection worker needs to be aware of: language! As I said earlier, protection staff are usually, but not always, lawyers or people who have studied or majored in a specific branch of law at some point in their academic life. Your understanding of some notions as a law practitioner might not be the same as that of someone who has spent their whole life in deprivation of any meaning of basic human rights or, worse, someone who has always lived in a lawless country to start with. Therefore, one of your responsibilities is also to ensure that you are using a simple language when explaining the asylum procedure to a potential refugee, especially in the beginning, so that you guarantee that all those in need of protection come forward and exercise their human right of seeking asylum in the country of arrival. Throughout my experience, there have been incidents in different countries where vulnerable people do not seek asylum just because they have not quite understood what it means or because they thought it had consequences on them in case the government in their country of origin received information on their whereabouts. Your duty as a protection staff member is to ensure no one is left behind without protection and that everyone is in a safe space in their country of asylum.

As a protection associate, you also are most likely responsible for individual cases, be it asylum seekers or recognized refugees. Depending on the duty station or the context in the region, the protection unit can have different focal points for specific issues regarding vulnerabilities and protection needs within the community of refugees and asylum seekers. The cornerstones of protection, which you would also find in almost every UNHCR operation or duty station, are Child Protection and SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence), and those are, among others, my main areas of focus.

Working as a child protection and SGBV focal point is both intensely challenging and highly rewarding at the same time. Your work in these areas is mainly that of a caseworker. As I said earlier, you would be handling and following up on individual cases related to child protection and SGBV, while applying the relevant local, regional and international legal instruments and using a well-structured and fast referral system to the appropriate entities (NGOs, partners, government, other stakeholders…). A typical day in the life of a protection case worker is going to the camp, shelter or urban areas, wherever the refugee communities in your duty station are accommodated, and conducting what we call a “protection visit”: informally talking to the people, saying hi to those you have already seen before to let them know you do remember them and you are not just a passerby who would forget their issues the next day, you ask general questions about their problems or, as we refer to them internally, “protection needs”. You will be surprised of how many issues one single human being can have!

What I usually do during these visits is prioritize minors, especially unaccompanied minors and children, try to talk to them, joke around about everything and nothing. And from that informal encounter, a lot of issues are eventually raised by them, even unintentionally. I do the same with women and young girls. And being a woman myself, it has often been relatively easy to have intimate conversations in a women-only circle about their issues and protection concerns as women refugees and asylum seekers.

Then comes the second part of the job of a protection associate, which might seem like the less exciting part: reporting. Honestly, I have never been a fan of office jobs; it is just not for me. I have always been extremely productive in the field from my very first days of volunteering at various refugee camps around Greece. And I have never understood why there are people sitting at offices, typing vigorously on their keyboards from 9 to 5, while there are people in tremendous need of protection visits and practical solutions in camps 30 mins away from the office. It was only later that I understood the importance of keeping records of all incidents, numbers and individual cases I was handling on a day to day basis.

Let’s look at it like this: in one month for example, you meet around 100 people daily (which is the smallest number of people I met in one day in any of the countries I’ve worked in), that is 500 people per week. Among these 500 people, you listen to 350 individual stories, some would never open up in the beginning, others would just not have a specific need. Out of 350 individual stories, let us assume that 250 are women and children / minors; so you have 250 cases a week to work on as a focal point for child protection and SGBV. And let us again assume that only 150 cases are classified as prioritized, needing urgent referral and intervention. 150 cases a week, that is 600 cases a month. With no reporting or recording of case details and intervention plans, vulnerable people who are in urgent need of protection might not receive it. Reporting, although not the most interesting task to a lot of people, is the one tool you use to follow-up on cases, record trends in refugee communities and predict changes, and advocate with stakeholders and governments for a better situation. And who can do that better than the person who has heard these stories directly from the storyteller? Correct, no one.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I think it goes without saying that being in constant contact with vulnerable people, people who have fled war and human rights violations and being at the receiving end of heartbreaking stories is the hardest part of my job. As much as I love this human contact and the moments I spend with people from different cultures and different backgrounds than mine, listening to their stories sometimes on the floor in a tent in an isolated camp, I find it extremely difficult to detach myself from these stories, especially if told by little children who most probably do not understand the gravity of what they are telling me. Any humanitarian worker is at risk of vicarious or secondary trauma, which I experienced two years ago and would never want to live through that again. However, the rewarding feeling you get and the smiles you see on peoples’ faces, knowing you contributed even slightly to their happiness, is worth every moment.

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About the author

Rahma Henchiri

Rahma Henchiri is an RSD/Protection Associate at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Her humanitarian journey started in refugee camps in Greece from the very first days of the “migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey – Greece). She gained her experience through working with different international and local organizations in Greece before moving to other countries. She has been working with UNHCR for nearly two years now in two different duty stations. Her main focus currently is on asylum law, child protection and SGBV within the refugee communities.

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