Hoping to inspire a new generation of young people to consider public service abroad, Andrew Painter addressed the Middlesex students who filled the Terry Room to capacity on the evening of October 10. As the senior protection officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representation in Ethiopia, Mr. Painter was in the Boston area to speak with students at Harvard Law School. His own preparation for his current post includes not only a J.D. from New York University School of Law, where he was a fellow with the Center for International Studies, but also an M.A. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he was a Ford Foundation fellow in public international law.
After being introduced to the audience by his nephew, School President Ben Painter ’14, Mr. Painter provided a brief history of UNHCR, which he described as an operational agency that works directly with people. Founded in 1950 after World War II, the agency was created to provide protection and assistance to European refugees and was expected to be in existence for about five years. Instead, its necessity has only increased over time, becoming a broader concern in 1967, when its coverage was made universal. Today, it serves more than 30 million people worldwide.
From its inception, UNHCR has specifically defined who may or may not be classified as refugees, what their rights are within a host country, and when their refugee status is considered to have terminated. Also stipulated are the obligations of the host country, which agrees not to return a refugee to persecution and consents to help provide identity and travel documents, education, and, if possible, employment.
Surrounded by unstable countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan, Ethiopia currently hosts 15 to 20 refugee camps, overseen by UNHCR. Mr. Painter focuses on providing protection and shelter for refugees, organizing camps and coordinating with other key organizations, like the World Food Program, to get basic provisions and services. Issues of health, child protection, and education are also his concern – as is trying to find permanent situations for refugees. This is particularly challenging in Ethiopia, which does not provide a path to citizenship and remains encircled by volatile countries. Only one percent of the refugees are able to resettle somewhere else, with most heading to the United States
Describing his work as “intellectually interesting and satisfying,” Mr. Painter said he hoped that students might contemplate pursuing this kind of career. While fielding numerous questions afterwards, he suggested that students might help make a difference at home, too, by keeping apprised of the situation in Africa and elsewhere, shaping policies by actively voting, and volunteering to help refugees in their local areas.