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From Juba to Bangkok: Mimi Girard on two radically different assignments

Khun Mimi at Doro camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan


Mireille Girard recently finished her assignment in South Sudan where she served as UNHCR’s Representative during memorable days for the people from southern Sudan. She recently started a new life and new job in a totally different place as UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand. Some impressions:

Doro camp in Upper Nile State, South Sudan 

You have very recently left Juba, after 2.5 years as Representative for the South Sudan operation. What impressions did you leave with?

I felt very privileged to have been there during the referendum of self-determination, the lead up to Independence and finally Independence Day.

It was a very special moment for the people of South Sudan, very emotional. Also for the Sudanese people who saw part of their country “leaving them.”  I will never forget these moments.  Unfortunately, the 18 months that followed were marked with increased tension with Sudan, even direct confrontations along the border, including the bombing of refugee-hosting areas. The challenges for UNHCR were going crescendo. It was one emergency after the other in a context where logistics are a real challenge.

So obviously one leaves with the impression of abandoning the boat. You would like to leave a situation where solutions are in sight, unfortunately this will not be the case for some time in South Sudan, at least for the refugees. 

What kind of Juba did you find when you arrived and what kind when you left?

Juba was a little provincial town when I arrived, a regional capital with a large degree of autonomy after the peace agreement with Sudan in 2005. Yet, there had been no infra-structural investment for decades because of the conflict.  Most of the constructions were pre-fabricated buildings. Our own compound was also a pre-fab.  We tried to gradually replace old accommodation containers by concrete construction but we had to do this little by little due to budget limitations. There were only four paved roads in Juba when I first arrived. When I left, there were about ten to twelve.  Development was picking up quickly with a lot of constructions everywhere.  I was telling colleagues that at that pace, the main airport road would look like the Champs Elysees before I left!

Large numbers of returnees from Sudan at times overwhelmed reception capacities in Juba, South Sudan.

What are your expectations for the future of South Sudan?

As far as refugee protection is concerned, I see a lot of hope.  Many officials told me that if they were in positions of responsibility today, that is because they had been given a chance to go to school in refugee camps in  Kenya or Ethiopia during the civil war in Sudan. So they know what a refugee’s plight means.

I think there is a great potential for a strong protection regime.  In fact, South Sudan already has developed a refugee law, which is good given that they are only a few months into Independence...

You have recently started in Bangkok, as Representative for Thailand. How are you managing the change?

Well, I am still settling down, it is indeed a radical change.   I am still amazed every day to see that things are so easily available.But this is what I like about UNHCR, you constantly change environment and never take things for granted.

It is good to remind yourself that having a functioning telephone network or eating fresh vegetables is not given to everybody.  I appreciate to alternate between types of operations. It is never good to remain constantly in emergencies, you become burnt out and less useful. Similarly, you do not really understand UNHCR if you never work in emergencies.  I try to maximize each experience.  I find this pushes us to develop different skills in each assignment. That way, we constantly learn.

Thailand is not completely new to me; I used to be a desk officer before, covering Thailand. I was also based in Myanmar for 3.5 years.  It is interesting to see that some of the challenges are still there along the Thai/ Myanmar border but people’s minds have evolved around them.  Repatriation was out of the question, now refugees start to think that one day they will be able to return home. There are new challenges also, we are not speaking about Indochinese boat people anymore but increasingly about Rohingya boat people.  Another big challenge for the region.

Doro camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan

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