"When I got the opportunity to move to Iraq with UNHCR I jumped at it"
UCC Law graduate Michael Prendergast is based in Jordan, where he works on the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis
What is your job in UNHCR?
I’m currently working as an Associate Reporting Officer.
Before you came to Jordan you spent two years in Iraq. What did you work on there?
I spent two very rewarding years there working in external relations and reporting for the office covering the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KR-I), through the UN Volunteers Programme. Iraq has endured a very complex humanitarian crisis in recent years involving huge levels of both internal displacement and cross border displacement (both Syrian refugees into Iraq and Iraqi refugees into Syria). The KR-I region hosts around a quarter of a million Syrian refugees in addition to over one million of the 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced since 2014. In addition to the displacement situation, the region is in the midst of an economic crisis and has had to contend with a lengthy armed conflict against extremist groups, all of which has amplified the effects of displacement.
What will you be doing in Jordan?
In Jordan I will be working as part of the Regional Director’s Office in Amman, which covers the Syria and Iraq situations. I will be working on the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), which is an interagency response plan to the Syrian refugee crisis, led by UNHCR and UNDP. It covers the humanitarian response in the five major host countries for Syrian refugees in the region (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt). My role will involve collaborating with colleagues in each of these countries for the drafting of the next plan for 2018-2019. The Regional Office covers the countries of 3RP and also Syria itself so, in addition to the 3RP, I will also be working on reports and updates concerning displacement and the UNHCR response in each of these countries. This includes the internal displacement situation in both Syria and Iraq.
How did you get involved with working in the humanitarian sector and UNHCR in particular?
I studied law in university and did a masters in international law, where I became particularly interested in refugee law. Afterwards, I started looking for opportunities with NGOs providing legal assistance to refugees and immigrants. I found work with Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre in Cork, first as a legal intern and then as a consultant legal officer. After this, I moved to Turin, Italy to work with UNICRI, a UN institute conducting research into crime and justice. However, I always felt that I wanted to work with refugees and towards the end of my time in Turin I started to get more involved in a number of voluntary projects supporting refugees. At that stage, I also started to actively look for a work in this area. When I got the opportunity to move to Iraq with UNHCR I jumped at it, much to the dismay of some of my family who were not too sure that it was such a wise choice.
What is your first impression of the situation in Jordan and the region? What is the focus of the regional office there?
The entire region is dealing with a number of crises: over 5 million Syrian refugees are displaced around the region, in addition to over 6 million people internally displaced in Syria and over 3 million people internally displaced in Iraq. Fortunately the neighbouring countries, including Jordan, have shown great support by bearing the brunt of the cross border displacement.
Our regional office coordinates UNHCR’s activities in the region and works with other UN agencies to ensure a coherent and effective humanitarian response. The office also has an important role in bringing the plight of refugees in the region to the attention of the international community, other donors, and the general public. The response in recent years has been exceptionally generous with around USD 12 billion raised to assist Syrian refugees since 2012 but, as the situation has become protracted, there is a danger that a kind of “donor fatigue” has set in. Continued financial and political support from the international community is needed to respond to the displacement itself and also to address the root causes.
Where in Ireland are you from and is there anything you miss from home?
I’m originally from Tipperary but I have moved around a bit in the last 10 years and I have lived in Cork, the UK, Italy, Iraq and now Jordan. The toughest part of being away from home is feeling disconnected from family and friends. I try to get back as often as possible, usually a couple of times a year. Aside from that, I miss a fire on a winters evening and a pint bottle of Bulmers cider on a summers day – with Irelands weather, I’m often lucky enough to get both of these things on the same trip home!