Thursday, June 26, 2008

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Kate Mitchell-Tombras reports from Panama:

Juan removes the loose 4x6 prints from the dresser drawer with tremendous care. Delicately unwrapping them from a protective covering, he introduces us slowly to each scene, each loved one, and each memory. My mother…my sister…my nephew…my boss—he was an American like you actually….
Juan does not hold the pictures, but rather, he cradles them. He handles each one like a piece of white-bone china, smiling upon it with pride and envy. I feel privileged to learn the contents of each photo, but I am also hesitant, not wanting to trespass on his only remaining property. Juan shares the final photo with my colleagues and me, and then, as meticulously as he retrieved them, he tucks the photos back into the drawer.
We are here on a home visit. The Red Cross partners with UNHCR to provide this service to urban refugees in Panamá. On this afternoon, my colleagues and I have met with seven refugee families, including traveling to their homes, ensuring they have enough food, and inquiring about any other pressing needs. Juan's residence is our final stop. He is a vivacious young man who is a current asylum seeker from Colombia. Although he possessed a well-paying job, lived a comfortable life style, and married a woman he loved, he was forced to leave Colombia out of imminent fear that he would be killed by the FARC. Now, he works as a day laborer (when he can find work) and waits patiently (for the bureaucracy demands patience) to learn his fate in the refugee determination process. Juan is one of the 25.1
million refugees and internally-displaced people currently under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around the world. Like Juan, they have fled, literally, for their lives. They have left behind their families, possessions, way of life, and the land they love.

This summer, I am working for refugees like Juan as an intern in the
Protection Unit of the UNHCR Panamá office. Most of my time is spent researching issues that impact individuals and families seeking refugee status in Panama. I investigate the country background of potential asylum cases with the goal of corroborating their stories with news coverage and government reports of the area where they fled.
I also have worked on projects to better understand how international refugee law is incorporated (or not) into domestic law and to consider ways the asylum-seeking system may be improved. Occasionally, I have the opportunity to "work in the field" and meet refugees living in Panama City. Already, I have learned a tremendous amount about international refugee law and the practical, messy issues that surface when dealing in a particular domestic context that is both a signatory to the relevant international treaties on refugee protection and has its own relevant domestic laws.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to intern with UNHCR this summer, a position I could not have accepted without the financial support from EJF. Regardless of my career track, the skills and lessons I have learned this summer will undoubtedly make me a better lawyer and a more compassionate citizen of the world.

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