How an Internship with UNHCR in Cyprus can help a young graduate

“Eye opening and life-changing experience”,
“I became aware of problems I had never imagined”,
“It was only satisfying to be able to help other people”
“Making a difference is a rewarding experience”,
“Invaluable tool for building a career in international relations”,

These are only few of the remarks made by young graduates or advanced students when asked on their internship experience with UNHCR Cyprus.

UNHCR started accepting applications for internships in March 2006 from advanced students or graduates in the areas of political sciences, social development, international relations, public policy, law, sociology, anthropology, etc. An indispensable requirement is of course an interest in humanitarian activities, human rights, refugees, or the United Nations Organization.

During the last 1 ½ year, 13 young activists, mainly of non Cypriot origin, joined UNHCR Cyprus for at least 3 months. All of them found the experience rewarding and at the same time benefiting UNHCR office enormously, as they all substantially contributed to the meagre resources of UNHCR in Cyprus and its work towards some 900 refugees and some 10,000 asylum seekers in Cyprus.

Helps you build a career in an international organisation

“Invaluable experience if you want a career with an international organisation” says George, a 29 German, graduate of international relations, law and economics. George after one year of working with the Government of his home country, he applied to a number of UN agencies and got invited to many interviews.

Although not paid for their work, after the completion of the internship and based on their performance, interns will be issued a recommendation letter covering the period of internship with UNHCR and area of work, which according to George can raise valid hopes for a career in an international organisation.

“While I had been offered my first and current job, before the end of this [UNHCR] internship, it continues to help me in my current job applications. Currently, for all jobs in the UN system – because of the high competitiveness in that job market – it is a virtual, if not explicit prerequisite to have worked or have had an internship at an UN agency… Familiarity with the UN system and with working in a multicultural and multinational environment is a prerequisite that UN personnel recruiters are looking for.”

For Eleni, a 26 Greek and US citizen, a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University who will graduate next year, this year’s internship with UNHCR determined her next steps: “It has sparked my interest in the legal aspects of refugee protection and I intend to pursue this avenue as a career path”

For those graduates who are still indecisive as to the career path they wish to follow Eleni has an advice: “An internship with UNHCR is the perfect practical training experience for students interested in a career in international relations, international law, and humanitarian affairs. A few months at UNHCR are sure to help hone your interests as well as your skills”. For her a career path in refugee protection has already been decided.

Not a menial work

Working as an intern certainly does not mean doing the photocopies, but instead working closely with the staff members on substantive issues.

“From the first day, I was treated like a regular staff member and I had been assigned specific tasks.” says Georg, whose main tasks during his 3 ½ months internship was to visit detention centres throughout Cyprus in order to gather information about detained asylum seekers, the reasons for their detention as well as on their detention conditions and then to report on these issues to his supervisor.

Also Eleni, , holds the same view:
“In Cyprus especially, interns get their hands on a lot of substantive work. The staff takes an interest in making sure the months of the internship are a learning experience, letting the interns' initiative play a role in the things they get involved with.”, she says, who also spent her previous year’s summer holidays in Athens doing an internship in the Greek Council for refugees.

Detailed guidance and supervision by the office staff

Upon submission of an internship application and once selected, interns are asked to work either to the Legal Protection or Public Information/Fundraising Unit or to other ad-hoc refugee projects, under the close supervision of a member of the permanent staff who will be responsible to guide meticulously the intern in his/her duties.

Detailed coaching and guidance can only result in the mutual benefit of both the interns and the office. Interns, on the one hand, will gain in practical as well as theoretical knowledge and the office will maintain the necessary quality in its work for the benefit of refugees.

At the same time however, the interns after having been assigned a particular task and the necessary guidance as to how they will carry out this duty, they are expected to work independently. Indeed, the ability to work independently is of utmost importance.

Working for the protection of refugees

Working in protection, the cornerstone of UNHCR’s work, includes a number of activities that according to Eleni, gave her “the rare chance to gain valuable insight into the workings of major international organisation”.

Eleni’s primary responsibility had been to attend the interviews of Iraqi asylum seekers at the Asylum Service, keep detailed notes on how these interviews had been conducted and then report to her supervisor. At the same time, she had been involved in many other projects and issues that arose on a daily basis, such as from legal research and legal drafting to advocacy for the rights of individual refugees and asylum seekers.

For purposes of carrying out her tasks, Eleni’s work included research on the conditions of the country of origin of specific asylum cases, research on EU and international asylum related legislation as well as keeping up to date with national legislative developments affecting refugees and asylum seekers as well as related ombudsperson’s reports.

Working in Public Information, Public Awareness and Fundraising sector

A well informed and sensitised public opinion is indispensable in ensuring a better protection space for refugees and asylum seekers. Thus, all the public information, public awareness/ fundraising activities are geared towards this direction, i.e. to foster empathy, prevent xenophobic and stereotype views that can only exacerbate the suffering of refugees.

Dana, a 23, Cypriot/Iranian, graduate in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and currently at Columbia University for her postgraduate studies says: “ working in public information allowed me to try to affect misconceptions and raise awareness for an often-forgotten cause”.

Her contribution involved a gamut of tasks varying from assistance in the awareness and fundraising Hope campaign of the office, to interviewing refugees and asylum seekers for purposes of drafting articles and/or opinions about refugee issues, to assistance in organizing workshops for students at schools.

Other duties in which PI interns may be involved concern the organisation of activities for the World Refugee Day, research for the purpose of drafting articles and press releases on related topics. Enthusiastic interns working in PI are free and are indeed encouraged to offer their innovative proposals for new activities (either public awareness and/or fundraising activities) to be undertaken by the office.

Working in PI does not prevent an intern from working in Protection and vice versa. Dana worked in both units and for her the result was equally rewarding: “Whether working on protection or public information I saw that my efforts could work to visibly make a difference in someone's case, whether through offering an asylum practical advice, putting them in touch with lawyers, or just listening.”

You can make a difference/ Rewarding experience

All the interns found the experience rewarding, each one in his/her own particular way.

Looking back at her first days of internship last year, Dana recalls: “When first beginning my internship at UNHCR I was not so sure of the "Difference" I would be able to make here in comparison to say UNHCR in Darfur or Iraq, but at the same time it is important to know that hardships and daily struggles exist for asylum seekers and refugees even in a seemingly calm environment like Cyprus' and that these people are a part of our society and should not be marginalised.”

Viewing her experience from a wider perspective, Dana ads: “My experience with UNHCR was a very rewarding one, not only because I learnt in first-person about the asylum system in Cyprus and the challenges it faces but also because it encouraged me to want to make a difference to our local community. Many of us study abroad and spend our student years away from Cyprus but that is not to say that our local community should not benefit from active young citizens who choose to come back and give back to the community in a humanitarian way; especially when the issue of asylum and migration is so pertinent to our present day world.” Dana says.

For Georg, it was his opportunity to know his limits “Although an emotionally challenging work, I grew with the job; it showed me what I was able to do, I got to know my limits”.
Similarly, for Stefan, a 27 multilingual Swiss, the internship “enhanced my self confidence in carrying out the tasks assigned to me”

For Alexandra, a Cypriot young student in anthropology who decided to spend most of her summer vacations as a volunteer to UNHCR’s office, it was an “eye-opening and life changing experience... I became aware of problems I had never imagined…I heard and felt the new multicultural composition of Cyprus and realized it poses no threat to my language or culture. Ultimately, this experience helped me become more informed, more sensitive and therefore, a better Cypriot citizen. I recommend it to all Cypriots, without any hesitation.”

If you are also interested in doing an internship with UNHCR Cyprus, send us your CV at

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