Dr Carlos Gigoux finds out more about an MA Migration internship by talking to Mackenzie Robinson

Why did you apply to the MA Migration at Essex?

After finishing my BA in Social Anthropology in the US I wanted to study an MA abroad, but I was not sure which one. I did a term abroad as an undergraduate at Essex, so I looked at various options there, but I was not sure which one to choose. I contacted Professor Colin Samson from the Department of Sociology and he suggested to consider the recently formed MA Migration Studies. Eventually I applied to three MA courses at Essex, and opted for the MA Migration studies after the admission interview with you. I got excited when you told me about the programme, what you guys wanted to achieve in connection with community partners and how you were still in a learning process with us. I was just 100% for it.

I recall that you were the first MA student that showed an interest in doing an internship during the Autumn term. Why was that?

Okay so to be 100% honest I think I was very overwhelmed with being on the course and not knowing at that point, really, what I had gotten myself into. You did mention the internship in the first week of teaching. I thought that maybe I would understand things better, as our course went on, if I got some real experience out there. Some students have a great deal of experience working with migrants, but I did not have any. It sounded interesting to be able to do something that was going to help others and it would help to build a bridge between my studies and reality. It was easy to reach out to you and you put me in touch with Refugee Action Colchester (RAC).

What do you remember of your first days at Refugee Action Colchester and meeting with the staff?

On my first visit to the Refugee Action Office I met Maria, one of the directors. I was nervous – not just because I forgot my CV - but Maria was super friendly which I loved. She told me about the work that they do and then she asked about myself and my motivation for been there. She told me that I would fit very well with the team and that they will be very happy to accept me for an internship.

photo of Maria Wilby and Mackenzie Robinson in the offices of Refugee Action Colchester

Photo showing Maria Wilby, Director RAC with Mackenzie Robinson, Internee 

What kind of work did you do at Refugee Action Colchester?

Sometimes, it would be like admin work, and I say that loosely because everything is vital there. I could be scanning documents, copying emails, forwarding emails to the appropriate person, reviewing a document, helping get a bank statement, reviewing an application if a service user were trying to apply for additional funding or just checking an issue that was coming up on a bill. But a lot of times, I helped review documents to be used for asylum claims or appeals. One time I had to find refugee camps in Greece for the sister of one person that we were supporting to access. Also, I was out in the field straight away. On my first day of work I was there for like 15 minutes and we get in the car and went to check up on a family that had recently moved into a new apartment in Colchester. The lady gave us some tea and we sat there and played with the kids and chatted.

You ended up continuing to work with Refugee Action Colchester once the internship was over. Why did you do that?

My internship was planned for just the autumn term. My work took place during November and December, once a week for eight hours each time. It was a great experience. I loved it so much. I learned so much working with the team and helping out, that I volunteered to keep working through the Spring term as well. Although the MA requires a lot of time to work on assignments, read the required material and participate in seminars I realised how important it was to keep a sense of reality by working in the field. I wanted to continue to help out in any way that I could to help people apply for asylum and appeals or find accommodation within 48 hours, issues that the team give support on. I just couldn't think of not continuing.

To what extent the internship and the experience help you in relation to your MA?

A great deal. I am not good learning only from reading. Working with Refugee Action Colchester made things so much more real. It complemented well what we discussed in our seminars. For example, in our seminars lecturers will reference a government website or migration scheme that I was using in my work with service users. It really connected the dots for me.

Your MA dissertation was inspired by your work at Refugee Action Colchester. Can you tell us about that?

During the Spring term we had to develop a research plan for the dissertation. For me it was natural to think of a research project that built from my internship experience. One of the issues that struck me was the discrepancy between policy and reality when it comes to asylum claims. I wanted to do my research proposal as a qualitative project on that issue and use a case study I had come across in my internship.

What was the topic of your dissertation?

The title of my dissertation is: ‘Social Service Separation – How Refugee Assistance is Falling Through the Cracks’. My dissertation critically examines the gaps in the refugee system and the asylum process and its negative consequences for asylum seekers. The first issue that I analysed is the contrast between targets and reality. For example, the UK sets a six-month time limit to arrive to a decision for asylum. However, we worked with people that have been through the system for years. We were assisting one person that has been in the asylum process for ten years. More often than not, the delays are not due to them but to bureaucratic errors such as official documents misspelling the names of the claimants. Also, language is problematic. The difficulty of understanding complex terminologies in a second language is problematic. I am English speaker and I struggled understanding some of the forms, so much harder for someone whose English is basic or non-existent. A second point that I highlighted in my dissertation is that every case is different with different circumstances and therefore requires different responses. Uniform responses are not fit for purpose. Someone arriving to the UK and claiming asylum on their own is not necessarily much easier that if they come with a family. The same applies if people are coming from the same country. There are so many angles to each story. This is why I adopted a qualitative approach in order to rescue their stories through semi-structured interviews. In total I interviewed 12 people. I learned about challenging individual journeys of displacement and the challenging journeys they face through the asylum system. The third point that I would like to highlight is the important role played by stakeholders such as RAC. They do an incredible job in such an efficient way. Asylum seekers could not go through the system without their support. To submit forms, to collect documentation and proof of this and that is really complex. The team does a great job with often little resources. Nonetheless, they help so many people from so many countries. If I correctly remember during my internship they already had helped people from 62 countries. Contrary to popular belief, people claiming asylum do not arrive from a handful of countries, they are coming from many different countries for many different reasons.

Looking back, was it a good decision to enrol in the MA Migration Studies?

Absolutely. I learned so much in such a short period of time. It was intense, but not overwhelming. I learned so much, met so many amazing people, both staff and clients. It was a humbling experience.

What about your future?

As I mentioned before I didn't really know what I wanted to do. Even when I started the MA, I was like okay we'll see what happens. Now I would like to be a case worker for asylum seekers and refugees. I built such a great relationship with everybody at RAC, to the point that they want to offer me a job and bring me back to the UK. This is beyond humbling and flattering. To be able to go back there and to use my studies and experience to support their amazing work for so many people will be great. Finally, I realised how research is important and I would like to continue doing it. The MA at Essex helped me to integrate theory and practice and that is something that I will definitely take with me as I develop my professional career in the field.