Interning at UNHCR Guatemala: Pénélope Fernandez-Busto

During the summer of 2022, I had the unique opportunity of interning at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization working to assist and protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons. I worked in the Protection Unit of Field Unit Izabal in Guatemala, tackling forced displacement in Central America.

Headshot of Pénélope
Pénélope Fernandez-Busto, a BCL/JD Candidate at McGill Faculty of Law and Protection intern at the UNHCR Guatemala.
As a first-year student in McGill’s Faculty of Law, I am deeply passionate about human rights and particularly women’s rights. I thus sought an internship experience that would allow me to work in this area while expanding my knowledge of the issues women may face and the ways in which the justice system and humanitarian aid may help solve them.

I feel deeply fortunate, as working for the UNHCR’s Guatemala branch allowed me to do exactly that. Indeed, forced displacement in Central America drastically affects women and children who flee risks of sexual assault, gender-based violence, and human trafficking, and often face these same risks in transit. As a Mexican citizen myself, I also felt particularly concerned about the issues facing Central America. I was, therefore, eager to contribute to the UNHCR’s efforts while being in a Latin American and Spanish-speaking environment.

Throughout my three months of internship, I was able to assist the team in researching displacement trends, reviewing Protection Transfer Arrangement applications, preparing field missions, and helping with weekly tasks such as meeting notes. My biggest task involved writing a report on migration trends and risks affecting displaced persons from Guatemala. Through my research, I learned about the socio-political climate in Guatemala and the realities displaced persons face in Central America. More importantly, my work allowed me to think critically about the current asylum system in Guatemala, analyze possible areas of improvement and suggest solutions both at a local and national level. I also had the chance to report on projects where UNHCR and UN Women partnered to assist women and support female leadership in local communities, which allowed me to adopt a gendered lens when thinking about migration issues.

Although the internship was remote, offering to help draft Protection Transfer Arrangement applications made me feel like I was “in the field” with the rest of the team. Hearing people’s individual displacement stories and working to assist them – despite being almost 6,000km away – was rewarding and full of invaluable learnings. It gave me a better idea of what the current asylum system looks like and made me realize the obstacles that unfortunately exist within it.

Dounia and Pénélope posing together
Dounia Al Jijakli and Pénélope Fernandez-Busto, both interns at UNHCR Guatemala.
One of my biggest challenges during the internship was working remotely. Building relationships with colleagues and supervisors online and being more autonomous in my work was harder than I anticipated. Working virtually also felt isolating, I sometimes found it easier to procrastinate or lose motivation. Luckily, I was blessed with an amazing team. With no more than 15 people in Field Unit Izabal, I found it easier to get to know my coworkers. They made additional efforts to include the other intern and me, scheduling one-on-one meetings to introduce themselves and check on us, organizing a team lunch and ordering food for us, as well as leading many onboarding meetings so we could be well integrated. Besides, getting to know the other intern working with me helped me create a support system back in Montreal. We made sure to meet weekly to work together and assist each other with certain tasks. This helped me cover more ground during the internship and in the process, I made a new friend!

Meeting people who were passionate and humble about their work was one of the highlights of the internship. Whether it was spending time with the team in Guatemala or getting the chance to speak with the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, during a UNHCR conference, learning from their breadth of experience made it worthwhile.

Zoom meeting
Pénélope asking a question to High Commissioner Filippo Grandi during a UNHCR conference.

I am extremely grateful for the summer I got to spend with the UNHCR and for the guidance of McGill’s ION throughout this adventure. I am also thankful for RBC’s Internship fund, which ultimately allowed me to live this experience. Working with the UNHCR challenged me in many ways and taught me a lot, as I got to work on migration issues in a completely Spanish environment for the first time. It has inspired me to keep seeking new challenges in the upcoming year while I continue exploring the legal field!

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