After living for more than a year in Bangkok, Thailand, I come from slightly different perspective from past recipients of the InterExchange Christianson Fellowship. I recently started my six-month internship with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), but I have been volunteering in Bangkok since September 2013. After graduating from law school in May 2013 and then taking the Florida Bar Exam, I moved to Thailand to volunteer as a legal advocate at Asylum Access Thailand, a small nonprofit that provides legal aid to, and advocates on behalf of, refugees in their first country of refuge. What began as a one-year volunteer opportunity quickly shifted into what I hope will be the beginning of a career in refugee rights and advocacy. After a year of working with refugees on the ground, I wanted to understand the various ways organizations advocate for the recognition, promotion and protection of refugee rights at the domestic, regional and international levels and so I applied to work at APRRN and applied for the Christianson Fellowship. Most importantly, I wanted to understand how these organizations work together even though they come from very different contexts and backgrounds.
APRRN is a network of civil society organizations and individuals that work to advance the rights of refugees in Asia and the Pacific region. Among many other things, we facilitate information sharing among membership organizations, conduct trainings, hold roundtable discussions and participate in advocacy campaigns. After two weeks at APRRN, I’ve realized there is so much more going on behind the scenes than I realized even after a full-year of working in the field.
My first day on the job was as a volunteer at the Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights. The three-day conference was an opportunity for all of the APRRN members to come together and make plans for how to tackle the many challenges facing refugee communities throughout the region. To say the least, I was immediately overwhelmed and immensely inspired. There were over 140 people from 22 countries participating in breakout groups, panel discussions and action-planning meetings. I heard advocates from many different backgrounds talk about the different hurdles refugees face in their countries. Currently approximately half of the world’s refugees are in the Asia and Oceania region, and each country has its own system of recognizing and protecting (or sometimes systematically ignoring) refugees, which means members of the network often come from completely different perspectives on what the best practices are for the promotion of refugee rights.
The best part of the conference was hearing participants exchange information on different project ideas and methods that worked well in their context. The working groups brought participants from different organizations together to discuss empowerment projects, campaigns on various topics such as ending detention of children and increasing awareness of refugee rights among the local communities, ideas for developing trainings on mental health, risk management and the refugee status determination process, and many other issues. In particular, I was very interested in a discussion session that brought together the Legal Aid and Advocacy Working Group with the Women and Girls At Risk Working Group to discuss how legal aid providers can increase accessibility of their services for women asylum-seekers and refugees in a safe and encouraging manner.
These kinds of conversations are critical for the development of refugee-rights programs and are completely different from the kind of work I was doing previously. It was very eye-opening to consider refugee rights in a holistic manner rather than focusing specifically on legal aid as I had been previously. More so, it was great to see advocates from Pakistan share project ideas with lawyers from Thailand and mental health workers from South Korea swap best practices with psychosocial counselors from Indonesia. It is great to see organizations crossing borders to develop strategies and build the capacity of members. I can’t wait to see how these projects move forward while I am at APRRN.