University of Melbourne Magazine

Finding displaced people a place to call home

  • Campbell Macknight, who has been working as a Protection Officer with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the past eight years, has reached a crossroads. The peripatetic nature of his work is not well suited to married life and at the age of 38, he would like, at the least, to live in the same country as his wife, Meriem.

    At the moment, Macknight (MPub&IntLaw 2010) is working in Iran while his wife of three years, who also works with the UN, is based in Tunisia.

    “We are now at the point of deciding where we might call home,”  he explains. “Working with the UNHCR is a privilege, but there are enormous compromises you make in terms of your personal life because of the frequent rotations.”

    The irony of wanting somewhere to call home is not lost on a man who has found his calling in helping to ease the burden of others who are looking for sanctuary. There are an unprecedented 65.6 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced. UNHCR figures suggest that 28,300 people a day are being forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

    Macknight’s work has taken him to challenging places, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Africa and Pakistan, but he has absorbed the dangers as part of the job. His first posting – to Peshawar, in Pakistan, to co-ordinate refugee resettlement programs – was especially unsettling because of the suicide bombing attacks, the constant threat of kidnap, and the grenades that were hurled on a daily basis into the UN compound.

    Yet it was working in places at high risk of petty crime that made him feel most ill at ease. He had just landed in Mozambique, in southern Africa, when he and a companion were mugged by a gang who were wielding machetes.

    His field work in war zones is a world away from his Australian roots. And yet, it was here that his passion for helping refugees took hold.

    He was 21 years old, had just completed an Arts degree and was unsure about what to do next when the ‘Tampa affair’ unfolded in 2001. The Australian government’s refusal to allow 433 Afghani asylum seekers rescued in international waters to land in Australia proved to be a defining moment for Macknight.

    He worked for the former Department of Immigration for seven years and, while he found some policies challenging, was inspired by the humanitarian spirit of many of his co-workers.

    He also enrolled in the Master of Public and International Law at the University of Melbourne, having previously failed to complete law at ANU.

    “It made a lot more sense to study for a Masters because I didn’t have a strong desire to practise law,” he explains. “The LLM course at Melbourne was outstanding and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now without the support and guidance of the academics who led the coursework.

    “They really shaped my ideas about international law, far beyond the provisions of treaties and legal jurisprudence, with a recognition and better understanding of social, political and historical factors.”

    Macknight almost made it home to Australia in 2014 but after just three weeks in Sydney, accepted that his life belonged overseas. He accepts that housing affordability is a vexed issue for many Australians, but the difficulties faced by people learning to live with amputations after terrorist attacks, or the issue of girls being forced into marriage at 13, resonate more strongly with him.

    Although he was born in Canberra, schooled in Melbourne and lived for a time in Tasmania, he has not lived in one place for more than a year since turning 18.

    “I suppose I am a little displaced myself,” he concedes.

    While still unclear about where his next assignment might take him, Macknight hopes that it will be in Europe, possibly Sarajevo or Geneva. He has yet to decide if he will concentrate on field or policy work.

    He confesses to a sense of guilt in seeing little of his elderly parents.

    “But I suppose that’s the price for taking on a career that has meaning for me and for trying to at least make a difference in vulnerable people’s lives.”

    By Muriel Reddy