The University of Essex has become the first university in the UK to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The partnership, only the fourth of its kind in the world, will offer new research opportunities for Essex academics as well as internships, research experience and collaborative PhDs for students.
Professor Geoff Gilbert with Essex graduate Anna Magdalena Ruesch
Signed by Essex’s Professor Geoff Gilbert, the memorandum formalises a collaborative partnership with the UNHCR that goes back to the mid-1990s.
Professor Gilbert, of the School of Law and Human Rights Centre, said the memorandum “recognises the breadth of education that Essex continues to offer with respect to the protection of refugees; whether that be the individual seeking refugee status in the global north or the thousands who cross borders in a mass influx in the global south.”
Unlike many UK universities, Essex provides its postgraduate students the opportunity to take modules in both the international law that protects refugees and displaced people seeking asylum, and the law that provides protection in relation to mass migrations caused by acute crisis.
The UNHCR has similar partnerships with just three other universities around the world: New York University in the US, University of New South Wales in Australia, and Tilburg University in The Netherlands.
The wide scope of the agreement means that Essex researchers will be able to collaborate with UNHCR whilst providing Essex postgraduate students with a greater academic understanding of the law as well as experience of the practical policy implications through research assistant posts with those academics. Students will also be offered internships at the UNHCR, either in Geneva or in the field, whilst PhD students could be able to spend time at UNHCR offices under the supervision of those working directly on the laws and with refugees.
Professor Gilbert stressed that this “reflects the University’s ethos of excellence in research and excellence in education providing research-led education for our students and the highest quality research with impact by the academics.”
One former Essex student who completed an internship with the UNHCR, Anna Magdalena Ruesch, highlighted why work experience is so vital. Anna - who completed Essex’s LLM International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in 2012 - interned at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva in the Public and National Security Unit in the Division of International Protection where she worked on an intervention with the Supreme Court of Canada on the issue of exclusion from refugee status.
She said: “This experience really helped me, first of all to get an insight into how the UNHCR works, which I think is essential if one wants to work in refugee law. Second of all, I gained a lot of knowledge working on the substantial issue; exclusion from refugee status. And of course…you meet a lot of people which is very interesting in order to see which career perspective one has with such a degree.”
Laureen Van Assche completed her LLM in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in 2013. She spent six months as an intern at the Refugee Status Determination and Protection Information Unit at the UNHCR Regional Support Hub in Nairobi, Kenya.
Laureen added: “Interns have full access to Learn and Connect, UNHCR’s online training platform with a variety of e-courses on, for example protection issues, programme management, IT-skills and languages. Working in a regional office familiarises you with both UNHCR’s work in the field as from a broader legal and policy perspective. This knowledge of UNHCR’s working environment is without doubt a good step-up to start your career in refugee law.”
Dr Volker Türk, Director of the Division of International Protection, UNHCR, said: “With the establishment of a memorandum of understanding, UNHCR wishes to build on past collaborations with Essex and to continue the partnership on a variety of activities that involves research and knowledge mobilisation for the benefit of refugees and other persons of concern in the UK and globally.”
Professor Geoff Gilbert is a renowned expert on international criminal law, the protection of refugees and other displaced persons in international law, the protection of minorities in international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law. In 2001 he worked on exclusion with UNHCR as part of the global consultation on 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. He has carried out human rights training on behalf of the Council of Europe and UNHCR in the Russian Federation, Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo. He has advised governments on their laws in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the FSU, and was the Director of the OSCE training programme on combating torture for judges in Serbia.
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