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We are no longer in an era where protection is exclusively about law or policy

MA Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies graduate, Sylvester Chapotera, on why an interdisciplinary understanding of forced displacement is essential in the face of complex humanitarian crises. 

Written by Peter Quinn |

MA Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies graduate Sylvester Chapotera
"The fact that the MA programme is multidisciplinary makes it particularly unique."

Sylvester Chapotera, from Malawi, graduated from the MA Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies in 2018. While studying for his MA, he undertook field work with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in his country of birth. A year before graduating, he was promoted to the role of Reporting Officer with the Africa Bureau at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. He talks to London Connection about skills, strategy and solutions, and how the MA has provided him with both specialised and multidisciplinary training.

The MA programme has enabled me to develop high-level expertise in the field of refugee protection and forced migration. The skill sets acquired are so numerous that I cannot name each one of them: among others, I have acquired an advanced understanding of international refugee law including the legal and policy standards and mechanisms pertaining to IPs, statelessness and stateless persons; a critical comparative understanding of the key components, standards and mechanisms of regional asylum systems; an advanced critical understanding of gender, age and sexuality in refugee and forced migration contexts; as well as the practical protection competencies and skills needed to secure protection of all persons in forced displacement situations. For this reason, studying the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration has helped me to build a solid foundation upon which I hope to advance a promising international career in Refugee Protection. 

It is, at its best, the finest academic response to the challenge posed by the evolving nature and scope of forced displacement.

Every item of course content is blended and interwoven like a piece of well-designed art. It is, at its best, the finest academic response to the challenge posed by the evolving nature and scope of forced displacement, which has not only grown in scale and scope but also in terms of complexity. The fact that the MA programme is multidisciplinary, and offers ‘Securing Refugee Protection in Practice’ as one of its elective modules, makes it particularly unique.  

We are no longer in an era where protection is exclusively about law or policy. We have already seen the recognition of this fact in the ever growing approval and acceptance of a whole-of-society approach as a viable strategic response to emerging protection challenges and the problem of forced displacement. The dawn of the Global Compact for Refugees and the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework echoes this level of maturity which is centred on the principle of inclusion. 

I joined the Africa Bureau in 2017 as a Reporting Officer for the West and Central Africa sub-region, after working in the field for over eight years in different protection capacities. Unlike my field work, which mainly involved direct contact with persons of concern to UNHCR, my current profile involves collecting and analysing information of all global, sub-regional and national developments of concern to the UNHCR protection mandate and programme activities in the context of the West and Central Africa region. Mostly, I prepare reports, briefings and background notes, as well as other documentation for senior management. It is the kind of work that requires high level and detailed mastery of refugee protection, not to mention research, legal analysis and the ability to evaluate humanitarian, protection and security situations. [Pictured below: Sylvester Chapotera and MA Programme Director, Dr Sarah Singer, outside Senate House, University of London.]

Sylvester Chapotera pictured with Programme Director, Dr Sarah Singer
"In a paper I am yet to finalise for publication, I have highlighted policy recommendations needed to bridge the gap between refugee protection and solutions."

There is no doubt that what I have learnt through the MA is directly relevant to my current job. For example, in my recent assessment of the prevailing forced displacement situation in West Africa, I took particular note of the manner in which the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel and Lake Chad region is becoming ever more interlinked with a combination of other factors, not to mention the effects of climate change, development challenges, and related security/peace initiatives. In the Lake Chad region, for instance, the continuing conflict and violence there is impeding physical and economic access to food, particularly through the disruption of livelihoods and markets. In turn, these factors are not only fuelling the conflict but also preventing returns. In order to effectively analyse complex humanitarian situations, one needs to be equipped with a solid interdisciplinary understanding of forced displacement, including appraising a range of non-legal sources. The MA has provided me with the required perspective as well as all the necessary skills and competencies to deliver in my current job.

The course content is particularly designed to deliver a sound interdisciplinary understanding of the field of forced migration studies and its fundamental debates.

The aspect of the MA I enjoyed the most was the course structure and mode of delivery. As the scale, causes and patterns of human mobility and forced displacement have become more sophisticated and interlinked, the need for specialised training is as relevant as the acquisition of a multidisciplinary training. The course content is particularly designed to deliver a sound interdisciplinary understanding of the field of forced migration studies and its fundamental debates. This is key to effectively and efficiently securing refugee protection and forced migration solutions in today’s world. The other aspect is that I have managed to earn a prestigious MA qualification in Refugee Protection through distance learning. 

It is important to state that pursuing distance learning is not necessarily easy. Work and family commitments often present a psychological tug of war which you cannot surmount without academic support. The academic guidance I received from my tutors was particularly useful in the struggle. I also found such guidance more relevant during my research project, during which I could contact my supervisor regularly and received all the academic support I needed.  

As part of my current responsibilities, I prepare regular updates on UNHCR operations and emergencies requiring special attention of senior management. These updates are prepared in such a way that, among other areas of focus, points for decision-making on strategic, operational, funding and capacities are highlighted for consideration at institutional and policy level. In addition, in a paper I am yet to finalise for publication, I have highlighted policy recommendations needed to bridge the gap between refugee protection and solutions.  

I have no doubt that I have made a positive contribution through the collective efforts of teams in the Africa Bureau. All that is remaining now is for me to further elevate the level of my influence and leadership in the field. I am currently working on my first publication on Refugee Solutions and already exploring opportunities for a PhD. 

  • The MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies programme team was recently awarded the Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching 2019 for its application, "Students with Diverse Educational Backgrounds: Special Support for Online Learning in the MA in Refugee Protection". With over 200 students on the MA, studying in 70-plus countries, the programme team recognised that some students would require special support to get the most out of their studies. New support measures introduced include a redeveloped postgraduate study skills section in the VLE, ranging from critical analysis and academic language to practical help for successfully completing an MA by distance learning and new explanatory videos for each module. Targeted safeguards and mechanisms have also been established to identify and assist students with learning needs or those who may be struggling with the demands of the UK university system.
  • Read our previous interview with Sylvester, in which he talks about how receiving the Guy S. Goodwin-Gill scholarship allowed him to take another step towards being a future leader in refugee protection.