Alumni Profile

Ms Erika Feller – UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

Ms Erika Feller (LLB(Hons)1972), Assistant High Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR), oversees the protection of 34 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people through the development of UN policies, legal procedures and framework.

Ms Erika Feller 

Ms Erika Feller's position requires an understanding of international law and displacement trends on a global scale, but she always keeps focus on refugees as individuals.

"You can be sitting cross-legged on the floor of a tent in a hot and barren part of Pakistan or somewhere in Darfur in Sudan and you can feel deeply depressed. Not only by the individual people you're encountering and the experiences they've gone through, but your inability to offer immediate solutions," she said.

"But you can also see the results of what you do. You can see the impact it can make on the lives of people, because you're not working on abstract concepts remote from their impact. You're actually quite close to the impact of what you do, which can be quite immediate and quite dramatic," she said.

Humanitarianism is Ms Feller's passion, but she did not discover this area of work until many years after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, (with Honours in Psychology) and a Bachelor of Laws (with Honours) from the University of Melbourne in 1972.

"During my final year of studies I was quite taken by people I met from the Department of Foreign Affairs, as it was known then, who encouraged me to act on a kind of intuitive feeling I had about where I wanted to go in life. So I applied for foreign affairs," she said.

She was accepted into a graduate position and commenced a diplomatic posting in Berlin. Geneva was her third posting. After fourteen years of working in foreign affairs, family needs led to a career change.

"When my posting ended I was sent back to Australia. There I was in Canberra as a married woman with an eight-month-old baby and a husband who was still working in Geneva. My husband took leave without pay to visit me and then, after a year and a half working in Canberra, I said I would take leave without pay to visit him in Geneva," she said. 

She soon decided she wanted to go back to work and the Australia Government was supportive of her request to be seconded to UNHCR in Geneva for six months.

 "We had a second child and things developed. Soon I was posted with UNHCR to Malaysia, where I served for three-and-a-half years, and my career developed from there," she said.

Ms Feller now monitors the movement and treatment of refugees around the world, including in Australia where refugees often make headlines and create debate in the community. She believes there is danger in refugees once again taking a high profile in an election year in Australia.

 "The debate in Australia has become very emotional again because of boat arrivals. But it is a very small number of people arriving and Government processes result in the large majority of those being given status as refugees. So we're talking about people who have valid protection reasons for having travelled to Australia," she said.

She believes suppositions about factors which may be attracting refugees to Australia, whether they be Government policy, the pursuit of better life opportunities or how refugees are treated when arriving on Australian shores, obscure the debate.

"I don't think people are pulled out of their countries because there is a welcoming mat in Australia. I think people are pushed out of their countries because of what's happening in their countries and then they look to where they may be able to find the safety and security and dignified reception that they need," she said.

"The Government is doing the right thing by not turning these people away. Australia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention so it's a distorted debate to say that to do the right, and proper thing is somehow wrong," she said.

Ms Feller believes that despite having varying policies on how to deal with refugees once they arrive on Australian shores, current and past Australian Governments have been generous in allowing refugees to resettle in Australia when compared to the rest of the world. "Australia has a program of over 13,000 humanitarian places of which 6,000 are made available to UNHCR to fill with UNHCR-referred refugees in need. This makes Australia one of the biggest resettlement countries in the world, along with the US and Canada," she said.

Many current University of Melbourne students are passionate about these issues and voice their opinions through various forums, but few will have the opportunity to be in a position, like Ms Feller, to have a big impact on the situation. Ms Feller advises students wishing to give themselves the best chance of working for an organisation, like the UN, to gain a demonstrated breadth of knowledge and interests, and some experience working overseas.

"I see a lot of people trying to build up their curriculum vitae to make sure that they are competitive on the job market. I can certainly say, based on my own experience, both as a graduate and now, that internships with international organisations like the UN are fundamentally important to potential employers," she said.

"They demonstrate a breadth of interest and skills development, particularly if they are different and rather challenging internships as opposed to something in their home town. They show that people have a preparedness to reach out and be a bit more adventurous," she said.

Ms Feller advises ambitious students that leadership can come through the pursuit of enjoyment or a passion, rather than being a career goal in itself. "I've always believed that the most honest and rewarding path to leadership is to get there by doing something you really like and doing it well – not by lobbying and exerting whatever influence you have or through who you know. Leadership can be achieved by enjoying what you do and committing yourself to it," she said.

To learn more about the UNCHR visit www.unchr.org.au

Image: Ms Erika Feller

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 3, May 2010.