'My ambition is to be a future leader in refugee protection'

How MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies student, Sylvester Chapotera, aims to fulfil a lifetime goal
Current MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies, Sylvester Chapote
"The idea that agreements must be respected is beyond reproach": Sylvester Chapotera
My ambition is to be a future leader in refugee protection. The scholarship has given me the opportunity to take another step towards this ambition

A Protection Associate with the UNHCR in Malawi, Sylvester Chapotera talks to London Connection about working with detainees, advocating for refugees' rights, and how the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies is enhancing his knowledge and skills.

Sylvester Chapotera:
I come from Malawi, a sub-Saharan country nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa”. The name Malawi comes from “the Maravi”, an old name of the early inhabitants. Malawi’s hospitality towards refugees is but one of the many illustrations of the warmth of its heart. Until the late 1980s, Malawi was home to over one million Mozambican refugees. During my early childhood days, I used to play with refugee children who were staying in my village. I was also attending the same school with them. I completed my secondary school in a Catholic seminary. I wanted to become a missionary priest. When I completed my BA Humanities degree at Chancellor College – a constituent college of the University of Malawi – around February 2009, I had made up my mind to be a different kind of missionary by working to secure the protection of refugees through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

My initial idea to study for the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies was motivated by daily challenges related to my work in the field. To address the challenges, I could work all day and during my free time without achieving much results. I quickly realised the need to work for refugees while studying for their protection during my free time as one way of enhancing my performance at work. Therefore, around 2010 I started looking for an online MA degree programme that is directly related to my work, but could not find any. When I found that University of London was offering the programme last year, I applied for it immediately.

Current MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies student, Sylvester ChapoteraMy work involves assessing the situation of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR in Dzaleka refugee camp and outside. The main objective when assessing the protection environment is to identify problems and to address them. This entails interacting with a wide range of partners including refugees themselves as well as refugee children and government officials, among others. I am also involved in training refugee officers including immigration, police and border officers. There are so many duties attached to my role since Malawi is a small refugee operation and there aren’t many UNHCR staff.

"What I am currently learning has already enhanced my knowledge and skills to protect refugees better."

The MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies is directly relevant to my daily work. I am working in a country that applies encampment policy because Malawi made a reservation to article 26 (on freedom of movement) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This means that all refugees are required to stay in a designated camp site. Those who are found outside the camp are routinely arrested and occasionally detained in prison facilities. I have to intervene on their behalf. I recently found myself applying the knowledge I have gained through initial studies on treaty law by applying principles and provisions of other bodies of law, such as human rights law, that complement refugee law in advocating for their unconditional release from detention. What I am currently learning has already enhanced my knowledge and skills to protect refugees better.

The first module of the MA, ‘Protecting Human Rights, Refugees and Displaced Persons in International Law’, has been interesting. From the course content I have studied so far, treaty law has been of particular interest. The principle of Pacta Sunt Servanda [Latin: ‘Agreements must be kept’] to me constitutes the core of Treaty law. The idea that agreements must be respected is beyond reproach and as it is self-evident, I wonder why it is not the case on treaties applicable to refugee protection. Pacta Sunt Servanda is an echo of my inner conscience as I try to address some of the challenges that I face in advocating for the rights of refugees.

I feel privileged to benefit from the unquestionable expertise of the tutors of the programme and their top-notch academic guidance. The standard of the tutors is obviously high and the challenge for me is to work extra hard to achieve the best.

"I hope that the story of my gratitude will be told by refugees who will ultimately reap the fruits of my work, nourished by the Guy S. Goodwin-Gill scholarship."

One thing I like about the online discussions is that they encourage thoughtful debate on issues. I always exit an online discussion forum wiser than when I clicked my way into it. I can study during my own time and attend the online discussion forums as and when I feel I have the time. This fits well into my busy working schedule. Some refugee problems rarely wait for an extra second. For someone studying and working for refugees, I really wanted a course that could wait for an extra second when the necessity to protect one more refugee, who can’t wait for an extra second, arises.

Receiving the Guy S. Goodwin-Gill scholarship is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. My ambition is to be a future leader in refugee protection. The scholarship has given me the opportunity to take another step towards this ambition. Above all, I hope that the story of my gratitude will be told by refugees who will ultimately reap the fruits of my work, nourished by the Guy S. Goodwin-Gill scholarship.