Day in the Life of a RSD/RST Advisor: Annabelle Craft

Name: Annabelle Craft
Age: 29
Hometown: Brisbane, Australia

What made you decide you wanted to work as a RSD/RST Advisor with Asylum Access Thailand?

My role as RSD/RST Advisor involves advising clients on the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process before the UNHCR and possible durable solutions including resettlement (RST). I wanted to work in this role because I believe AAT offers a crucial service to asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand, many of whom are extremely vulnerable.

I have worked and volunteered in varying capacities in the refugee/asylum seeker field, and more generally in the community legal sector. For example, I completed my practical legal training with Justice Connect, a community legal center based in Melbourne, Australia.

Directly prior to starting with AAT, I spent a year travelling from London to Tehran with my husband, mostly hitchhiking and camping. It was an incredible experience, especially the time we spent in the Kurdish region of Turkey (near the border with Iraq and Syria) and Iran. We saw in reverse the flow of asylum seekers out of these conflict zones, especially when we went near the Syrian border and saw literally thousands of people on the streets and in parks. Of course, you read and hear about it in the news, but to see it in person really cemented for me the magnitude of the displacement, and my passion for working in this field.

It also demonstrated the pressing need for durable solutions; something that is currently not offered in Thailand. Working as a RSD/RST Advisor with AAT is a fantastic opportunity to empower refugees to effectively take part in the RSD process, and hopefully access a durable solution.

Please describe a typical workday for you.

The workload at AAT is demanding, and requires our passionate and talented team to work together to meet a very high level of need within our limited resources. I am in the office no later than 9am, and depending on the day will stay until at least 6pm. The work is very diverse and day to day can be very different.

Once a week we have our ‘walk-in’ day, which means clients can come and see us without an appointment. On that day, we can meet with as many as 50 clients with a wide variety of inquiries relating to the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process before the UNHCR, resettlement options, protection concerns in Thailand or general survival issues.

We work closely with our Community Outreach team, as many of our clients have very pressing survival concerns (such as homelessness, lack of food or medical issues). You learn quickly in this job that clients rarely come to you with a discreet issue. Most are at constant risk of arrest and detention, with no right to work and limited access to essential services like health or education. When people’s immediate needs are so overwhelming, it can be hard to find the space to focus on providing advice and information regarding the RSD process. This means we work closely with the CO team to help those in need access essential services, as part of AAT’s holistic strategy of empowering refugees and asylum seekers.

On other days, I also work with our team to present community legal training on the RSD process. We often provide training to one particular country group and tailor it to the questions and issues that arise for them. We cover timeframes for the RSD process, what UNHCR is trying to assess, as well as practical skills relating to writing a statement or completing your RSD interview.

The rest of the time I mostly work providing procedural advice and information to my clients, such as drafting legal briefs, and taking testimony from clients for their RSD application. This involves meeting a client on multiple occasions, often with an interpreter, to draft testimony regarding why they fled their country of origin, and why they cannot return.

Please describe a typical weekend day/day off in Thailand

The working week can be pretty full on, so I usually spend the weekend with my husband relaxing and enjoying the sites of Bangkok. We are particularly fond of trying out the various street food vendors around the city. I also go indoor rock climbing and for long walks on the weekend.

What has been your greatest accomplishment as a RSD/RST Advisor?

AAT has recently been given the opportunity by UNHCR to sit in on the RSD interview for some of our clients, and I was lucky enough to be the first one in our team to be able to do this. I attended the interview with one of our clients who is particularly vulnerable with complex needs. Helping her prepare for that interview, and being able to support her through the process was a wonderful experience.

Clients are often waiting five years or so from when they arrive in Thailand to when their RSD interview is scheduled, so they can be understandably nervous and anxious about telling their story clearly to UNHCR when the time comes.

After the interview I attended, it was very satisfying to see how relieved my client was. She said she really felt like someone had really listened to her; something which is so important for asylum seekers who have to wait so long to tell their story in the first place. I see working as a RSD/RST Advisor, including attending the RSD interview, as about empowering all our clients to have that experience.

What have been the greatest personal and professional challenges you’ve faced as a RSD/RST Advisor?

The nature as well as the volume of the work at AAT can be quite challenging. A lot of our clients present with a complex set of intersecting vulnerabilities. I work regularly with survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) as well as unaccompanied minors, those with complex mental and physical health needs and others with serious protection concerns in Thailand. These vulnerabilities often overlap, and also intersect with general survival issues like homelessness and financial insecurity. For example, a client may present with a claim based on prior SGBV who is also illiterate and may be experiencing serious protection concerns in Thailand.

Figuring out the best way to help our clients with such complex legal and non-legal needs is definitely one of the greater challenges of the job. Knowing you simply cannot create more resources to meet very pressing and immediate need within the asylum seeker and refugee community can be upsetting, because sometimes there are simply not the resources available to provide the help someone needs. Learning to listen to the stories of our clients, to show empathy and compassion even when you cannot always provide a solution, can be very challenging.

Even though it can be difficult, I find myself impressed on a daily basis by the resilience of my clients in the face of unbelievably difficult situations. I’ve seen clients, who are themselves in need, offer food, shelter and support to others who need it most. For all the challenges that come with this job, I am inspired on a daily basis by my clients to continue working towards the empowerment of all asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to asserting refugee rights in Thailand?

As Thailand is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, asylum seekers and refugees who have overstayed their visas or entered Thailand illegally are considered illegal immigrants and are at constant risk of arrest and detention. UNHCR is solely responsible for conducting the RSD process. With asylum seeker numbers rising, the wait time just to get an interview is now at least four years, with at least another 14 months to get a decision after that. So just to be assessed as a refugee or not is taking over five years. During this time you cannot work, education options for your children are limited to non-existent, you have very limited health care and you are constantly worried about getting arrested. If you are put in detention there is no guarantee you will be released. If you are found to be a refugee, then you may be eligible for resettlement but this is no guarantee and currently need for places far outstrips supply.

These wait times, and the stress and poverty asylum seekers and refugees face during the RSD process, are huge challenges to asserting refugee rights.

Tell a story about a language barrier or cultural difference.

I work on a daily basis with community interpreters and have learned to be sensitive to cultural customs and patterns of disclosure when it comes to things like SGBV. Someone who has experienced SGBV may have never told anyone else this happened before. They may not tell you that part of their story in a meeting with you until they feel secure and understand well that the conversation is confidential. To help clients be open about their whole story however difficult we have to ensure we have a safe space and the opportunity to establish trust between the client, our interpreter and of course their RSD/RST Advisor.

How will this experience shape your future career plans/goals?

This experience has given me an incredible opportunity to develop my skills as a lawyer, to manage complex and competing deadlines, develop cross cultural communication skills and cultural awareness, and work to meet the needs of a large client base with complex and intersecting needs. It has further fueled my passion to dedicate myself to the empowerment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Finally, the AAT team are fantastic — driven, committed, highly skilled and passionate about helping asylum seekers and refugees. Working as a RSD/RST Advisor is an incredible experience, and something I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the refugee legal aid field.

Schools attended:

Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Political Science and English Literature, Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Australian National University.