In the field with UNHCR: “It really makes a difference when we cooperate with the private sector”

Children at a water pipe in the Hilaweyn camp in southern Ethiopia, home to about 45,000 Somali refugees. The construction is funded by UNHCR’s partner, IKEA Foundation, and it supplies water to the area used for agriculture by both refugees and Ethiopians.

© UNHCR/Diana Diaz

Charlotte Ridung in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This is the third interview in the series, “In the field with UNHCR”, providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Danish colleagues, working for the organization all over the world.

Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?

“I wrote my thesis at the University of Copenhagen on refugee law, so it’s a topic that has always interested me. Newly graduated, I was stationed by the Danish Refugee Council, but subsequently I was employed permanently by UNHCR, where I have been ever since.

In that way, I have actually only worked with refugees, internally displaced people and the human rights sector my whole life, but I am extremely happy with my job and the work we do in the field with the refugees and the internally displaced. I have never been stationed at the headquarters, and even though it is a changeable and unpredictable life, I think it’s exciting to live in other cultures and I like to be posted in the field.”

How would you describe your work?

“Since April 2018, I have been Assistant Representative in Ethiopia with a focus on protection, and I have a fairly wide range of work areas. Throughout my career, ensuring people’s legal rights has been at the core of my work, but as I have moved on to senior positions, I have gained a broader perspective. The protection mandate is the foundation of our organization, but it is important to have a good and strong cooperation with all the other branches of our organization, such as human resources, the administration and the colleagues who are responsible for our specific programs and initiatives.

The situation in Ethiopia is quite complex. Currently the country hosts 905,000 refugees from several countries and in addition approximately 2.4 million people are internally displaced. Last year alone, about 1 million people were internally displaced in Ethiopia due to violence and ethnic tensions. In total, we have 26 refugee camps around the country, and new refugees from Eritrea are still arriving.

At the same time, many exciting things are happening in Ethiopia. We have a good cooperation with the government. We also experience a growing commitment with development partners and the World Bank as part of the so-called Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, where several actors, including development cooperation partners, are involved in the efforts. We are currently collaborating with the IKEA Foundation, who is involved in a project to establish irrigation systems in order to better cultivate the land. It really makes a difference when we have that kind of cooperation with the private sector. They come with a lot of experience and a completely different business approach – combined with our experience in working with and for refugees – which brings very encouraging results.”

 

What is one of the best experiences you have had, working with UNHCR?

“I have to highlight our resettlement program because it’s a classic example of efforts where we can truly see that we are making a difference and we are improving people’s lives. Only very few refugees are given the chance of resettlement, but the program nevertheless provides a small group of people some opportunities to start a new life that they would not otherwise get.

I remember a man in the Central African Republic who had been burnt at 70 percent of his body. He couldn’t get adequate help and live a proper life here, but he was resettled to Finland, and it saved his life. Another example were two male Burundian refugees I met in DR Congo. They were really vulnerable and exposed because they had been named by the authorities on a radio program and it was quite clear that they could not stay in the country. We had them living in the backyard of the local UNHCR office until we could get them resettled in Sweden.

Similarly, it’s always a very moving experience, when you help facilitate family reunions. I’ve tried it a couple of times, and I have to admit you get a lump in your throat when you see people reunited after  not seeing their children in a long time or perhaps after being separated from close family members for years.

I have also participated in repatriation operations a few times, both from Guinea to Liberia, from the Central African Republic to what is now South Sudan, and in Latin America from Panama to Colombia. Repatriation must always happen voluntarily and under safe and dignified conditions. There are of course many challenges when people return home and start to rebuild their lives, but people are just so happy, and it’s fantastic to be a part of it. ”

Charlotte Ridung in UNHCR

  • Assistant Representative in Ethiopia.
  • Trained lawyer specializing in refugee law.
  • Has been employed with UNHCR for twenty years.
  • Has been posted in Guinea, Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Algeria, Lebanon, Cameroon, South Africa and Yemen. Has also been on emergency missions to Pakistan, Liberia and Lebanon.
  • Has worked in a number of different roles in UNHCR, including Senior Operations Manager and Head of Sub-Office in several countries.

What is one of the worst experiences you have had, working with UNHCR?

“I have had several violent experiences such as when the Saudis bombed Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, in March 2015. I believe that as a humanitarian worker you are, to some extent, willing to accept risk-taking in the job because the work is typically in disaster areas, but you accept it, because overall it provides assistance. But the hardest part is to witness situations like in Yemen, a cruel example of war and destruction, and the conditions that the local population is suffering in.

I also remember my first posting, Guinea Conakry, where we worked with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sierra Leone. It was a very tough place to start, since many of the refugees had been severely mutilated by armed groups. We had to create a database of human rights abuses, and I remember we were told that we could choose whether or not we were able to cope with this work.

In my current work, I find it extremely difficult to witness that it’s getting harder and harder to find support to help refugees and internally displaced people. I have experienced a very generous attitude towards refugees in Latin America, and we also see a strong generosity from many African countries who share the little they have with large groups of refugees. But the differences between the countries and regions worldwide are really big, and the approach to refugees and displaced people is felt immediately. We are also constantly confronted with this in relation to mobilizing money, where it’s always harder to obtain funding for the operations in Africa, and this has consequences.”

Charlotte Ridungs own photo from Ethiopia. © UNHCR / Charlotte Ridung

Charlotte Ridungs own photos from Ethiopia. © UNHCR / Charlotte Ridung

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is present in 130 countries around the world, helping men, women and children who have been forced to flee from their homes due to war, violence and persecution. Our headquarters are located in Geneva in Switzerland, but the vast majority of our employees work in the field and in the places in the world where the majority of the world’s refugees are situated.

Learn more about UNHCR’s work here.

 

Read our interview with Danish Anna Leer in Pretoria, South Africa here.  

Read our interview with Grith Nørgaard in Yaounde, Cameroon here.