Interning at UNHCR Ecuador: Arthur Scalabrini

I am writing this report to thank McGill International Experience Awards founders and Mr. Garvin Brown for their generous contribution. The award enabled me to complete an enriching internship at the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Quito, Ecuador during the summer of 2019.

I applied to this internship because, during my undergraduate studies, my interest grew for human rights related issues through classes and internships in this field. Then, coming into my first year of law school, I had the opportunity to volunteer for the International Refugee Assistance Project, an organization that provides legal assistance to asylum claimants. As a result, I was curious to explore international refugee law in a professional setting. I believed that an internship with the United Nations would provide this opportunity and enable me to discover the workings of an international organization.

The UNCHR is an organ of the United Nations with the mandate to protect refugees, returnees, international displaced persons, stateless persons and asylum seekers. In Ecuador, the UNHCR assists people displaced from, for the most part, Colombia and, to a lesser but increasing degree, Venezuela.

My internship took place within the resettlement unit. This unit conducts interviews with displaced people to determine if state representatives from countries like Canada, New Zealand, or the United-States can accept them for resettlement on their territory. During my internship, I drafted several portions of resettlement forms, such as the summary of the persecution of the claimant, the legal analysis of the case, and the country-of-origin information. State representatives use this form, along with their own interviews with claimants, to determine eligibility for resettlement. I also observed and assisted UNHCR caseworkers during resettlement interviews.

One of the highlight of my experience was a demonstration by asylum-seekers and refugees in front of the UNHCR office for several weeks. Displaced people from Colombia and Venezuela face various forms of discrimination in the Ecuadorian society. Landlords refuse to rent to them. Employers refuse to hire them. These difficult conditions were certainly a factors in pushing them to demonstrate in front of the office building for many weeks. It was then interesting to see how the UNHCR dealt with this situation, which was exceptional in the history of the organization in Ecuador. Indeed, after the beginning of the protest, a game of public relation ensued with media reporting on the demands of the protesters and the response of the UNHCR. Interestingly, those demands often showed a profound misunderstanding of the role of the UNHCR and the functioning of international protection. I believe that this reflected the extent to which refugees are uneducated about their rights, sometimes expecting too little, sometimes too much. The police eventually intervened to remove the protestors. In sum, I found this “crisis” very insightful in understanding the situation of refugees in Ecuador and the public relation side of international humanitarian organizations.

My academic background was extremely useful to fulfil my duties. The classes I took during my undergraduate degree had provided me with a good understanding of international refugee law and international human rights law. Furthermore, my first year of law school provided me a basis to write effective legal analyses. Although I am not sure whether I want to pursue a career in the field of refugee law, I now have a more sensible outlook regarding what international civil servants can achieve by working in an international organization like the UNHCR. Moreover, I am certain that the knowledge I acquired will be transferable to other work environments no matter where I decide to head.

I would like to thank the McGill International Experience Awards once again and I hope some other students will have the chance to take part in this internship in the future.

Back to top