Author: Naela Mendoza (Vienna Master of Human Rights)
Last October I began my internship with the Caritas refugee support offices in Graz “Caritas Fluechtlingsbetreuung Steiermark”. The first few weeks, as I made my way through the office introducing myself, my academic plans and field of study, I was frequently asked the same question: “Human rights? But that doesn’t really relate to your internship here does it?” The question caught me completely off guard, so much so that I initially didn’t even know how to respond. How did individuals who worked directly with asylum seekers not see the connection between their work and the world of human rights? It seemed like such a clear connection to be made, considering that asylum and refugee rights are currently some of the most discussed human rights topics, especially regarding the current migrant situation in the European Union.
The world of human rights has created its own kind of culture which seeks to reflect – and reflect on – our fundamental dignity, equality and freedom. It draws on the theory of natural rights first declared during the American and French revolutions, and later institutionalized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the number of treaties, monitoring bodies, and courts that followed. The human rights culture can be most easily seen through this establishment of institutions but also through its general creation of human rights related art, literature and social movements.
These instruments generally seek to protest and provoke resistance, express solidarity and to inspire others. Yet the same institutions and human rights culture have been the ones that have seemed to frame the world of human rights as one where only political and academic elites deal with the most extreme forms of suffering — genocide, starvation, torture, etc. This tendency to focus on the extreme has overshadowed depictions of more ordinary and banal forms of injustices, like the bureaucratic obstacles in the asylum system filled with paperwork and “integration contracts” that Caritas workers must navigate in order to receive any sort of aid for their refugee clients.
Human rights education and general ideology has been bound to mostly academic and political institutions, seemingly unable to reach the general community, meaning that human rights mechanisms and culture have been better established among these elite groups, creating a human rights system in which there exist those who deal with it “directly” and those who consider themselves removed from it. Human Rights and the culture around it claims to seek the improvement of the life conditions, dignity and well-being of all of society. International human rights mechanisms, however, are embedded in international organizations, such as the United Nations, and elite professions, such as international diplomacy and law. Along with the system of those who are seen as “directly” working with human rights and those who are not, there has also been a dialogue centered mainly around the global perspective, directing attention to national crises creating a sense that the human rights world is something larger and far removed from the average individual. In this culture people fail to see the daily injustices around them as equally valid human rights abuses that are just as connected to the larger systematic abuses of human rights abuses, such as the caritas worker fighting the overly burdensome bureaucratic asylum system.
While the average person may lack knowledge of formal human rights instruments, but they do not lack the desire for basic human rights protections. By providing information of the relevance and importance of human rights especially in our day to day work we give everyone the opportunity and the knowledge that they can participate more equitably in human rights development.
- Caritas der Diözese Graz-Seckau Flüchtlingsregionalbetreuung (Regional Refugee Support offices)
The Flüchtlingsregionalbetreuung offices act as an intermediate party between the Austrian government and refugees. They assist asylum seekers coming into Austria with housing, monetary aid, legal counseling, family support and integration classes among other types of social assistance.
Task & Duties:
My duties so far have been to assist the Caritas staff with general clerical duties, translation of Caritas documents (German to English and/or Spanish) and to assist with the distribution of the Caritas magazine “MEGAPHON” to vendors. I have also been shadowing different Caritas staff and observing their day to day tasks such as sitting in on legal aid counseling and going on site with Caritas workers to do home visits at Refugee housing in and around the Graz area.
Most recently I have been involved with the Caritas Lerncafes and Learnbars which offer after school support for refugee children, in which I offered English tutoring to the children and helped coordinate their annual end of the year Christmas party in which children received gifts from donors. Another ongoing project is the translation of an 80-page welcome manual (German to Spanish) for Latin American refugees under Caritas care. Lastly, one highlight of my time so far with Caritas has been being featured in the December 2019 issue of the MEGAPHON magazines in which I was asked to speak about my families Christmas traditions in a segment that talked about different Christmas traditions around the world.
As for difficulties, COVID restrictions and the lockdowns have presented several challenges during this semester. At the start of my internship several Caritas staff, including myself were placed in quarantine due to an office supervisor testing positive. Several events and projects in which I had been asked to assist with have also been cancelled due to COVID restrictions. Being that the working language at Caritas is German most of my projects were meant to be very hands on assignments with limited clerical work, I was worried about restrictions going so far that I would not be able to assist in the offices in an efficient manner. Although things such as home visits and face-to-face appointments with refugees had to be restricted in contact and frequency and larger-scale events were canceled, I am happy to have learned more about refugee work in Austria and been able to see the asylum system in action. Thus, I was able to experience in which ways human rights codices are being applied or not applied, specifically in the asylum process. Overall it has been a very interesting and eye-opening experience regarding the real-life application of our theoretical human rights framework.