Our man in Tehran

14 October 2013

Bernard Doyle has come a long way - literally and metaphorically - since his childhood in Ferbane, Co Offaly. With 120 staff and six offices in Iran, Bernard's current position as UNHCR's Representative in the country is one of great responsbility. Not least because Iran hosts one of the biggest refugee populations in the world. 

He tells UNHCR's Alana Ryan about his 25 years experience with UNHCR, before outlining why Ireland's support is of the utmost importance to the Agency's operations. 

 

How did you initially become involved with UNHCR?

Well it’s the NGO story, I first of all worked for Concern in Tanzania and then I subsequently worked with the Lutheran World Federation, so this was all working with refugees and encountering UNHCR through working with an NGO that worked with refugees. So that’s how I got to know a little bit about UNHCR. I mean the reality is I filled up an application form and then one year later I get a call saying can you come to Sudan next week? So that’s how it worked!

Was it a big change working in the NGO sector, or was it a natural transition for you? How do they compare?

Well it’s different of course, NGO work is much more focused and limited to certain areas, I would say. Whereas working with UNHCR you have to deal with everything and anything so it’s much less precise work in a way, it’s much less focused on a particular type of assistance or a particular topic; it’s totally wide in its scope… You have much wider responsibility, I would say, than in the case of working in a NGO.

You started working for UNHCR in Sudan and now you're Head of Office for UNHCR in Iran. How has your work evolved in the time between? 

Well there have been a lot of steps in between, from Sudan. The type of work: It’s similar in many respects – when I went to Sudan I went to work as head of a small field office. There was myself and three other staff; we had a very big refugee camp at the time [in Sudan]. There I was essentially a representative of UNHCR on a one camp scale, but in Iran I am the Representative on a country wide scale. It’s surprisingly similar in that respect. You have to respond and represent UNHCR on all levels and on all topics whether you’re at field level or a country rep level.

Are the challenges the same or does the difference in scale present new challenges?

Well the difference in scale does present new challenges. As a country rep you can never be off duty you’re always the rep whether it’s the weekend or the middle of the night or whatever – there’s no escaping your responsibility, that’s one of the features of being a rep, for sure. Certainly the scale has a different effect, in that the decisions you make and the things you do can affect a large number of refugees and activities, whereas in a field office the damage you can do is contained.

Picture above © UNHCR/M.H.Salehiara: Afghan boys at school in Iran. Afghans first arrived as refugees in Iran in the early 1980s. There are now 840,000 living there. 

Has any post over the years stood out to you in particular?

Well, it’s like your children you love them all equally, so it’s hard to pick one.  This is the UNHCR thing: Our work is so diverse, every country and every situation presents really new and sometimes exciting challenges and I think every country I’ve been to I’ve thought ‘oh this is the most interesting’ until I came to the next country. It’s really hard to say there’s a favourite, I think every country is outstanding in a different way.

How long have you been based in Iran? Could you give me a brief description of your day-to-day work?

I’ve been here two and a half years now. A lot of it involves time spent in discussions with government counterparts, government officials, negotiating with them. A lot of it is spent in travel; visiting refugee locations and projects to see what is happening on the ground. A lot is spent with donor relations; talking and explaining ourselves to our donors. A lot is spent on our own internal management; managing the office, our very stringent accountability processes that are in place in UNHCR … So every day is some part of all of that. A week is a combination of most of those main activities. We have six offices in the country and 120 staff. The vast majority of staff are Iranian. 

How did you adjust to life in Iran?

It’s surprisingly easy. Iran – most people are surprised when they arrive - is very normal. People are a bit like Irish people in the sense they are very friendly, very outgoing, so an immediate rapport is easy to establish with Iranians. Iranians are very interested in external things, what’s going on in the world. Apart from the fact that Tehran itself is a huge city home to 16-17 million people. It’s a monster of a city, so for Irish people coming from a population of 4 million that’s quite a shock to adjust to, just the scale of the city.

Why, in your view, is Ireland's support to UNHCR so important?

From our point of view there are two types of support that countries like Ireland can give. One type of support doesn’t cost very much, and that is moral support. The Iranians have hosted millions of refugees over three decades - compare that with the average European country. This represents an enormous humanitarian contribution by the Iranian people and so Iran needs to get acknowledgement from other countries like Ireland that what they have done for the refugees  is good and that they’ve done a good job … that’s very, very important and that’s a very valuable no cost contribution to supporting the refugees inside Iran.

The second thing is, of course, financial contribution. The work of UNHCR is a manifestation of international solidarity with the Iranians. The work we do, particularly in the area of health and education, is very important for the refugees, but it’s also important for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The refugees who receive education and health care in Iran can be healthy and well educated refugees who can return and help rebuild their own country. So the financial contribution that Ireland or other countries can give has a double value in the sense that it helps the immediate refugee problem, but it also potentially contributes to stability and development inside Afghanistan.

What is Iran’s biggest achievement in hosting refugees? 

Apart from the protection they have given by allowing Afghan people to stay, I would single out the education system as their biggest contribution.  The Iranian education system is very advanced and very good quality and they have allowed the Afghan refugees access to the Iranian schools, so it’s not the situation where the refugees are in a camp and they’re getting second class education, they’re getting the same education that Iranian children are receiving. And it’s gone on for the last 30 years so it’s not short term; it’s a very long term solution that the Iranians have made to millions of refugees, so it’s worth supporting that both morally and financially, where possible.

Is there anything about Ireland that you miss?

Well, it’s always home, it’s always a part of you. Being Irish in UNHCR in a place like Iran certainly helps as Ireland still has a reputation of being not part of the mainstream but somehow different – in a good way. It’s a very good calling card in many countries, including Iran, to be Irish. It still is a bonus, so I never forget that I am Irish because it’s useful to be, in the work we do.

 

 

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