Friday, October 2, 2009
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Malaysia
By Jacob Zenn
During the summer of 2009 I interned with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My work at UNHCR was aimed at determining who fit the international law definition of a refugee and then providing assistance to refugees under the mandate of UNHCR. Other NGOs could also provide assistance to refugees in need of support, but UNHCR has legitimacy from UN and very few organizations can exert pressure on domestic governments like UNHCR. During my internship at UNHCR, I performed various tasks. Much of my work was performing research for the Refugee Status Determination Unit office on Country of Origin information for refugees from Myanmar to determine whether they warranted a presumption of eligibility (POE). Those groups of refugees who received a POE would have an expedited status determination procedure and have their eligibility for protection available with immediacy. I also interviewed refugee applicants from Myanmar, such as ethnic Burmese or Arakanese people, who did not warrant a Presumption and made recommendations on their refugee status to the Deputy Representative of UNHCR Malaysia. I also interpreted Chinese language refugee applicant interviews from mainland China and I visited Myanmar for one week and presented the findings from my trip to the Refugee Status Determination Unit.
However, my favorite part of the summer outside of work was experiencing life in Kuala Lumpur. I learned Malay language before starting the internship which allowed me to fully immerse in the society. Kuala Lumpur has an interesting demographic balance with the majority of the people Malay ethnicity and significant minorities of ethnic Chinese and Tamil Indians. There is also an evident presence of immigrants, both legal and illegal, and refugees. During my free time I would meet with Myanmar refugees and migrant workers and study Burmese language with them. This helped me understand the psychology of the refugees with whom I interviewed at the UNHCR office. I had to be careful though not to allow my relationships with Myanmar refugees prejudice my work.
I will follow up with this experience by gaining the credits to satisfy the Certificate for Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies and attempting to work for UNHCR or a similar organization after I graduate.