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The refugee doctor

Author: Matt Willis Date: Thu, Nov 28 2002 642 Views
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REFUGEE representative Dr Luise Druke will be awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa by Shumen University to acknowledge her work for human rights during the last 30 years, including the introduction of a refugee studies initiative in Bulgaria. The official award ceremony will take place at Shumen University on December 10.

Last week the first students of the master's degree programme in social work for refugees, introduced last April and taught at the New Bulgarian University, took their final exams. "These subjects are new for Bulgaria," explained Druke. "The students have worked hard and we're very happy with the results of their written exams."

As representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bulgaria, it is unusual for Druke to have been so involved with the refugee study initiative. She not only initiated the programme, on the suggestion of the State Agency for Refugees' members, but has also been teaching students along with other UNHCR staff members and university lecturers. "UNHCR people are not usually quite so active with academic teaching," she observed, "but it is very useful to have a combination of practical and academic work. It makes sense because professors have practical examples of what they're teaching and can involve students in how solutions are found in the practical application of cases."

With her own extensive experience of working with refugees since 1970 in several continents, combined with her academic qualifications that include four master's degrees and a doctorate, Druke is more than qualified to develop and teach such programmes. She hopes that the Refugee Studies Initiative in Bulgaria (ARSiB) will soon be adopted in Europe and, after that, the world. "First it will be picked up in Central Europe - in Poland and Slovakia there are also very good refugee professors. We have to build it up somehow." To ensure that the initiative is not seen as a small, locally based programme, Druke made agreements with the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University and the President of the European University Institute to arrange co-operation and activities for students and professors.

Although the UNHCR does not have a mandate to protect a country's nationals, Druke has also been involved with promoting the study of minority rights in Bulgaria. "We sell the idea as refugee prevention," she said. "In that way we can to assist minorities in Bulgaria." Refugee prevention is one of Druke's key passions, her doctoral thesis, written at Harvard University on Preventive Actions for Refugee Producing Situations and available in book form, was the first to deal with the subject. She hopes to continue her work in this field in the future.

In the meantime, besides the continuation of ARSiB, Druke is busy preparing for the implementation of Bulgaria's new Refugee Law. It was passed in May this year and is due to come into force on December 2. Druke's efforts graetly contributed to the speedy adoption of the new law. The previous law, adopted in 1999, failed to reflect any UNHCR recommendations. In 2000, when she assumed her functions in Bulgaria, Druke made it her priority to support the authorities pro-actively in the drafting of a new Bulgarian Refugee Law. She tirelessly lobbied politicians and civil servants, including them in receptions and inviting them to briefings, and initiated a series of round table meetings in parliament to discuss the law.

"Lobbying has been an essential part of my work," she explained. "Sometimes, with important figures, you only have a minute to speak in a corridor. In that moment you must communicate to them the essence of what needs to be kept in mind - then you follow that up with a letter."

The result of a very joint effort, that was lead by the State Agency for Refugees, and greatly assisted by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee's Project for Refugee and Migrants Protection, her and her staff, as well as the entire National Task Force and other related UNHCR partners, was the new Refugee Law which she considers a significant step ahead in aligning Bulgaria's refugee legislation with international and European standards.

In actual terms the law means that asylum seekers entering Bulgaria will have their cases dealt with faster and with the same or improved standards of protection. One the tasks of her next two years in office will be to ensure that the new law is effectively implemented, in line with the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees.

Though Bulgaria currently deals with only around five per cent of Europe's refugees, there has been a recent increase in refugees from Iraq in anticipation of war. Druke was recently involved in planning and co-ordinating the emergency refugee camp operation within the NATO Co-operative Key 2001, a close co-operation with the civilian and military authorities of Bulgaria and NATO Headquarters AirSouth, Naples. In the forthcoming NATO Co-operative Key 2003, there are plans for a emergency refugee camp operation near Plovdiv that will have a scenario capacity of 20 000 refugees.

Bulgaria has built up a capacity for 500 refugees in four centres (Sofia, Banya, Kapitan Andreevo and Lubimets), which are not full at the moment. "Bulgaria is now prepared for any refugee emergency," said Druke.

Eventually she hopes that, if there is no major emergency, the UNCHR will be able to withdraw from Bulgaria. "We come to do our job and then get out," she said. "The four offices that I headed in Honduras, Portugal, Singapore, and Chile are now closed - in a way it's a compliment to the countries. I'm proud of the UNHCR because we're very quick and efficient."

Druke added that she humbly accepts the Doctor Honoris Causas while paying tribute to all who have put so much work into refugee work in Bulgaria in the past 10 years.

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