Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996
Solving the daily problems of asylum-seekers requires a lot of patience and compassion, according to Vienna-based Case Worker Sabine Racketseder.
By Sabine Racketseder
UNHCR Case-Worker – Vienna, Austria
"And what do you do there?" is the question that people ask when I say I'm a case-worker with UNHCR in Vienna. The answer: receive and make phone calls and reply to mail.
As a case-worker in the legal unit, I deal with individual cases, in cooperation with the protection officer. Calls and letters from individual asylum-seekers and refugees, with various requests and pleas for help, are first addressed to me.
Many of the asylum-seekers who contact us are in detention. They write in their native language, and their letters need to be translated. The outcome usually hinges on finding a non-governmental organization (NGO) taking care of refugees – or another competent person nearby – who can visit the asylum-seeker in detention and provide legal counselling. I visit detention centres myself from time to time in order to speak personally with asylum-seekers and refugees, and to see how they are accommodated. This is often shocking: small, cramped cells, miserable sanitary conditions. They're all bored to death. Their only activity, if you can call it one, is waiting, waiting, waiting – sometimes for weeks and months.
We don't get mail only from refugees in detention. When asylum-seekers run into problems with the asylum procedure – if they feel their application has been wrongfully rejected – they contact UNHCR. I often refer them to UNHCR's partners in their locality (NGOs or lawyers). If, after examining the person's reasons for flight, we do feel that he or she is a refugee within the meaning of the 1951 Convention – and if all legal recourse has been exhausted – UNHCR intervenes directly with the authorities.
Some refugees request UNHCR's help with finding accommodation, resolving difficulties with travel documents, or financial problems. There are also requests for family reunion and resettlement with family members in other countries. The telephone conversation alone is sometimes very difficult, since often the person on the other end has a hard time using a foreign language, or is very upset. Even finding out the reason why they're calling is sometimes quite a lengthy operation. People also seek comfort – they want to unburden themselves and simply need to talk to somebody. So I try to listen patiently; meanwhile, the other line starts ringing, somebody appears in the doorway, and work piles up on my desk. However, it is not me who should be pitied, but the despairing individual on the other end of the line.
Hectic situations arise whenever we must intervene to prevent a forthcoming deportation. Usually we only know a few hours before the plane takes off that somebody is to be returned to his country of origin. Do we feel the person is in need of international protection? If so, we need to contact the refugee counsellors at the airport and intervene with the authorities. Occasionally, we inform the media. Sometimes we manage to stop a deportation; unfortunately, not always.
I also help set up general statistics on the overall situation for refugees in Austria. Where do asylum- seekers come from? Why is the number of asylum-seekers from Country X on the rise? Why are refugees from Country Y hardly ever granted asylum? Such queries need analysis of selected individual cases. Regular contact with NGOs taking care of refugees is vital.
Direct contact with refugees is the motivation for my work. It can be frustrating. But I consider individual case-work a very important domain within UNHCR. I never run out of work, and in a way it never ends. When I leave the office in the evening I take some individual cases home with me, in my thoughts.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)