An interview with our Swedish colleague Karolina Edsbacker, until recently in Libya and Tunisia.
Karolina Edsbacker conducts needs assessments on an interagency mission with IOM and UNHCR in Zintan, Libya.
Why did you choose to work for UNHCR?
“As a girl, I dreamt of working for the United Nations and decided to study International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University, Sweden. It was a very new programme at that time and very interesting. At the same time, I became engaged with a local NGO that worked in a reception centre for refugees and asylum-seekers. We provided basic legal aid, visited the centre weekly, and collected interviews to see what type of support the people needed.
It was when I listened to people’s stories about what they had faced on their journey to Sweden, I realized that I wanted to join UNHCR and preferably work in the field in the countries where those people were coming from.
So, that is how it all started. I first got an internship with UNHCR in Istanbul. Then, when I finished my master’s degree, I worked with integration in the municipality of Malmö and later, at the Swedish Migration Agency. But I wanted to get back into UNHCR, so I applied for a UN volunteer position (UNV) in a small duty station in Bossaso in northern Somalia. That eventually turned into an Associate Protection Officer position and now, I have been working with UNHCR for six years in four different countries.”
How would you describe your work?
“I am Durable Solutions Officer with UNHCR Libya. I manage the resettlement programme out of Libya and work on complementary pathways, which is a fairly new programme within UNHCR that I find very exciting. We work with third countries to find alternative solutions for refugees in addition to resettlement, for instance family reunification, humanitarian visas, labour mobility, or educational schemes.
Libya is a very strategic destination and hosts around 43,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers. Many come because they want to reach Europe. But Libya is an insecure place and is not considered as a country of asylum. After years of armed conflict, there are still many different players and power relations between formal and informal actors in the country. This also impacts the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers, who are being resettled from Libya because of the situation there. They have gone through a lot of hardship to reach Libya, and many are victims of trafficking, kidnapping, and torture.
We have caseworkers who conduct resettlement interviews remotely via computer from Tunisia, and of course, we have colleagues on the ground in Libya who are coordinating the interviews. If we receive a positive reply from the resettlement country, we coordinate with IOM, the International Organization for Migration, who supports us in booking flights and handling all the logistics related to the departure.
During the process, we try to keep regular communication with the refugees. Because it is a lengthy process, some of them might get frustrated and decide to irregularly cross the sea to Europe. This can have tragic consequences ending up in loss of life. We try to be in constant contact with them, sending messages to everyone registered with us and encouraging them to share with us any updated contact details or changes in the family composition.
In Tripoli, we have a registration office and a service centre where asylum seekers and refugees can receive assistance. We also operate extensively through implementing partners and local Libyan NGOs. This is really one of the key ways to reach out to refugees in the country.”
Watch the video with Karolina below to learn more about UNHCR’s resettlement programme in Libya:
What are some of the best experiences you’ve had, working for UNHCR?
“The highlight of my job is when we get an acceptance for resettlement, after weeks or months of working on a case, and the day of departure comes. When we see the smiles in the faces of refugees at the airport, how they are waiting to start their new life, that is an incredible feeling.
One particular story that comes to my mind is that of a young Ethiopian man I met in Somalia. He had to flee because of his political engagement and at the border with Somalia, he was shot and was paralyzed from the waist down. In Somalia, he only had minimal assistance and inadequate medical care. If he would have stayed there, he would have never been able to walk again. I conducted the resettlement interview with him. He was resettled to Sweden, but I did not know until I was on holiday at home and received a phone call from a nurse in a hospital in Stockholm, who said “I have a person here who wants to talk to you. His name is Omar.”
I went to see him and he thanked me for bringing him to Sweden, even though that was not in my hands. He had just arrived in Stockholm and the nurse at the hospital, where he was receiving treatment, was confident that he would be able to start walking again. I wish I was still in contact with him now, but I hope it went well for him. I got some photos from him where he looked healthy and was leaning on a cane. He was walking.
When I have a difficult moment or feel demotivated at work, stories like these are really what keeps me going and why I decided to commit to this field of work. This is what is particularly rewarding about working with resettlement. You really see the results of your work, even more so in Libya because the procedure is pretty fast compared to other countries. It is an amazing feeling to be at the airport in Tripoli to wave goodbye to the refugees, see their excitement, and hear about their aspirations for the future.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced, working for UNHCR?
“During my years at work, I have unfortunately handled cases where individuals have died, either because they had severe medical conditions and passed away because they were not resettled on time, or because they tried to cross the sea from Libya and disappeared. I have also heard many difficult stories throughout the years, when interviewing victims of violence and torture, trafficking, and sexual abuse.
When I was in Bossaso, Somalia, there was an attack in a neighbouring city, Galkayo. I had just been there and got to know some colleagues working with UNHCR and UNICEF. The week after I had left, some of my UNICEF friends were killed in a suicide bombing attack. In Libya, I have also had some bad experiences in terms of security. I was in a convoy that was ambushed, but overall, the UN is not a target in Libya.
I think the reason why I have been able to cope with these experiences is that I come from a very stable country, had a stable childhood, and had never seen a war in my life before. I think somehow, deep down inside, that has helped me because I know that – even if I am in countries where senseless things happen – I can always go back home and get some rest surrounded by family and friends.”
“Stories from the Field” is an interview series providing insight into the daily lives of some of our Nordic and Baltic colleagues, working for the organization all over the world. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is present in 135 countries and territories 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.