By Bana Tesfamichael, programme officer at Refugee Rights Europe
I began my journey with Refugee Rights Europe (RRE) in May 2019, as a student studying an MA International Relations course. I found RRE whilst searching for NGO organisations within the UK where I could undertake an accredited internship as part of my MA. I sent an email asking if RRE offered internships or voluntary roles during the summer and received a quick response and was offered an internship position as a Programme Officer. This was an exciting opportunity for me to practice what I have learned through my course with an organisation that tackles human rights issues head-on, advocating for policy change for asylum seekers and conducting research in refugee camps, with tangible impact on the most vulnerable and those that help safeguard them and offer direct help.
During my time with RRE, I have worked on a variety of campaigns and tasks, initially forming social media visuals, such as animated videos and text videos and picture quote graphics, then moving towards outreach work, contacting members of the UK parliament and civil society, inviting them to attend our youth welfare officer campaign event in the UK parliament. Additionally, since the new MEPs were elected in May 2019 and upheld their seats on 2nd July, I made initial contact with them, on behalf of RRE, in order to build more support for our campaigns. I later was lucky enough to attend an RRE event in the European Parliament in Brussels, where I was able to meet some of the MEPs and listen to a discussion on the matter of the refugee crisis and its handling by the European government. It was an insightful experience as many members attended and listened to RRE and partner organisations who work on the ground in refugee camps around Northern France, the Greek islands and the French-Italian border.
As part of a small, but an extensive organisation, I have had the pleasure to represent RRE on a few occasions. For instance, I was part of a public event organised by our partner organisation Safe Passage, where a petition and signed letter was handed over to the Home Office, requesting that a legal route to safety for child refugees in Europe seeking to reunite with family in the UK remains open after Brexit, as well as providing them with a report conducted by RREs researchers. Many attended the demonstration before the handing of the letter, which gave me an opportunity to meet some of the Safe Passage team and supporters, Lord Dubs, who is a member of the House of Lords and a refugee rights champion with personal experience arriving with the Kindertransport.
I also represented RRE in an iMix meeting, who are a team of professional communication experts wanting to change the conversation about the refugee and migration sector. I was representing RRE alongside a network of refugee and asylum-seeking organisation that runs every few months. It was an interesting session as I got to see and discuss with other like-minded organisations about new campaign ideas that will help push the narrative that presents asylum seekers as more than a ‘vulnerable group’, but rather humans and agents in their own right and who are entitled to safety and security. Moreover, I was also given an opportunity to talk on behalf of Refugee Rights Europe in the European Parliament in a roundtable event on ‘The Situation of Displaced Women and Girls in Northern France’ alongside experts and activists in the field and MEPs from FEMM and DROI committees.
Throughout my time with Refugee Rights Europe, I have learnt that change is a very slow process, especially when trying to influence policy and social change, however, even if you are able to ignite a spark of interest in what you believe in, it is worth all the obstacles and challenges that come with it. Additionally, I have learned a lot of practical skills, such as being more proactive and initiate new ideas and different approaches to tasks, which is an important skill for work and social environments as learning to take different approaches and be adaptable to a changing environment is crucial to achieving a goal.
The challenges I have come across have been minimal, however, as RRE is a small team and a few staff members are located in different regions of Europe, such as Berlin and Sweden, and with the changing environment within the asylum-seeking and refugee sector, it can be difficult to keep each other updated. Additionally, as being a programme officer consist of having many roles, this can be conflicting as some tasks overlap and prioritising certain projects can be confusing. For instance, juggling time-consuming tasks such as creating social media graphics with longer-term outreach work, such as contacting MPs/MEPs and donors, can be a challenge and requires excellent time and project management skills. As well as these tasks, managing my own projects did seem daunting at first, but became easier to manage week by week.
There are many benefits to joining an organisation like RRE and internships provided by such small organisations with a start-up feel gives interns, such as myself, an opportunity to be flexible in their role and are able to grow in different areas of the human rights and NGO sector. For example, searching for funders and understanding how to tackle funding applications, starting a social media campaign, starting and handling a project of your own, as well as representing an organisation in events and meetings has been very useful for me. There is always room to try new tasks and develop new skills which are important for individuals who are trying to get into a competitive industry, such as the international development and human rights sector.
I am grateful for this opportunity that Refugee Rights Europe has given me in order to help me progress in my career and helped me develop my skill set through giving me the freedom to work on all areas of NGO project management as well as, involving me in different events, campaigns, and meetings which has expanded my knowledge within the sector. I encourage anyone wanting to gain practical knowledge within the sector in a flexible and diverse role to take on internships with start-up organisations such as Refugee Rights and be proactive and contact the organisation directly, as many do not have postings online for voluntary and internship roles, however, may still have the capacity to welcome interns into their team.