In over 20 years at the UN Refugee Agency, Felipe Camargo has worked in many of the world’s most dangerous places. One of the places he has returned to multiple times is Bangladesh – where since 2017 more than 723,000 Rohingya refugees have sought safety from persecution in Myanmar. Felipe describes what keeps him going back to the field – even in the face of his own personal tragedy.
“It was a shock to see thousands and thousands of people crossing rivers with the water up to their chest, with one little bag of belongings, their babies in their heads to cross the river, so little that they could bring with them. And sadness in every single face you know. It’s a population that has suffered so much. You know, I worked inside Myanmar in 1996 and it was a “deja-vu”. For me, it was like going back to the sadness that the Rohingya carry in their lives and that was devastating.”
MELISSA FLEMING (MF): I just met Felipe actually quite recently and we went out for pizza in Geneva and he was just the light, the whole place knew him in the whole pizzeria. He is just so open and friendly and he gets to know everybody in his community and whatever restaurant you’re in, whatever refugee camp you’re in. He is also just one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. And you know I find that so incredible because the things he’s seen, he takes in these tragic stories. And yet he still remains optimistic about humanity. And I just find that really inspiring.
Felipe Camargo (FC): you know there has to be always something positive that comes out of the worse. And I think humans in desperation in those conditions you also see the reciprocity of support, the help. Seeing families that have nothing. I saw it in Tanzania with the Burundi crisis just a couple of years ago in a small village that received 55,000 people in a few days. And they said this is the third time these people come and we share everything with them. So as much as you go through the suffering of what you see, just to see the response by others that encourages you.
MELISSA FLEMING (MF): I’m Melissa Fleming and I’m the spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Few of my colleagues light up a room like Felipe Camargo, and that’s despite his years spent working in the toughest circumstances and his own personal tragedy. So I really wanted to ask him where that positivity comes from for this episode of Awake at Night.
One of the places Felipe keeps returning to is Bangladesh working with the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
FELIPE CAMARGO (FC): I’ll tell you. It was… I cannot say devastating because I had seen it before but it was a shock to see thousands and thousands of people crossing rivers with the water up to their chest, with one little bag of belongings, their babies in their heads to cross the river, so little that they could bring with them. And sadness in every single face you know. It’s a population that has suffered so much. You know, I worked inside Myanmar in 1996 and it was a “deja-vu”. For me, it was like going back to the sadness that the Rohingya carry in their lives and that was devastating.
MF: You were in Bangladesh in 1996 and 97 and you saw at that time Rohingya refugees. So you were serving them then and you just went back again now.
FC: It was the same people but this time they were fleeing Myanmar. So I saw them when they would return and being repatriated from Bangladesh. I was working in the villages doing the repatriation, supporting the process of the repatriation, bringing people back to the villages in areas where they were returning. And they were allowed to return. And this time, I see them fleeing those areas where we have helped them repatriate. So it was very shocking and I had pretty much recognized some of these faces of people that I had helped 20 years ago, 21 years ago, and now back having to receive them in conditions of desperation in Bangladesh. So it was a very tough, very emotional, not just for me. You know I met again colleagues that I saw 21 years ago when we were doing cross-border missions, cross-border meetings. I used to come across the Naf River to accompany the repatriation boats bringing the refugees back. So it was very emotional to see how this was happening.
MF: You had one encounter with one of those people. You had helped a man return back home way back when and he fled again. And he recognized you.
MF: Can you talk about it?
FC: That was very emotional. His name is Enamul Hoque and he used to be a field assistant with me. He comes from a small village called Bandemir. I was standing in the camp in Kutupalong with the high-level delegation from New York and the minister of rehabilitation and disaster management from Dhaka. An old man came to me and hold me by the arm and said: “Mr. Felipe, do you remember me”. I looked at him and of course I remembered his face. And I just couldn’t contain myself. I walked with him into a room and I hugged him and he hugged me and we were there just two of us crying because he was my field assistant. We walked together for miles and miles and miles doing projects and as a field assistant he had a very good English. He was always solution-oriented. I could remember exactly moments of our work together. It was very emotional. He took out a paper that I signed for him on the 2nd of December 1996 basically confirming that he was working for UNHCR as a field assistant.
MF: And he still carries that paper to this day?
FC: He still carries that paper with his little bag in a plastic.
MF: With your signature on it?
FC: With my signature on it. And again I just fall into tears because it was so emotional to see how important this little piece of paper was. The moment that he worked for us in UNHCR here was so important for him that he kept it for 21 years in his bag.
MF: He was among hundreds of thousands of refugees who had streamed in that really short period into Bangladesh again. I mean for you personally, as someone who had once helped refugees, Rohingya refugees, almost the same people, some of the same people returned home. And now you were in charge of the emergency operation, the coordination of the emergency operation in helping them as new refugees who had fled. How did that make you feel?
FC: You know it was a very difficult operation. UNHCR was working in a very difficult environment. So for us, to have access to the refugees was difficult. But I was so lucky to go with a fantastic team. You know we were a multi-functional team. A lot of colleagues from our headquarters in Geneva came with me. So you had technical people, you had nutritionists, you had health, shelter and protection officers, managers, admin human resources.
We grew up as one team together with the colleagues that were on the ground and really, very quickly managed to turn the emergency into a full delivery operation. And I quickly managed to have access to the refugees. So for me it was a proof that what we do is essential to save lives and protect people. And we managed to mobilize ourselves very quickly. The government at the local level was absolutely fantastic in allowing us to do that you know, giving us a green light.
I recall one night, two days after a riot, it was pouring rain you know there was still the late Monsoon but the rains… I don’t know if you’d been to that part of the world but when it rains it rains (laughs) and I couldn’t sleep thinking of nearly half a million people sleeping outside under plastic or without anything on their heads. And I called at 11.30 at night. I called the commissioner of the refugee agency of the government and I said “please let us distribute plastic sheeting tomorrow”. And he said yes. So as the next day, we started distributing plastic sheeting to families. Each family will get at least a plastic to cover their heads on arrival and we manage to establish entry points where we could provide with other partners basic medical screening, registration, immediate hot meals. But it was very, very difficult because seeing the numbers, the magnitude of the disaster, the conditions in which people were arriving was devastating.
MF: It’s terrible to compare one tragedy with another but you have been around the world in your 23 years at UNHCR and have seen victims of war streaming over borders with nothing, victims of atrocities that are unthinkable. When you think back, what are some of the worst things that you witnessed?
FC: Well the list would be long. I started my humanitarian career with an NGO with an international NGO with Care and incredible, my title was “emergency co-ordinator” only after a few weeks. But I started as a volunteer! And it moved very quickly to be an emergency coordinator. And I recall the Balkans. I was in Croatia and in Bosnia Herzegovina responding to the conflict and that was a live conflict. We were in the middle of the conflict. So seeing people that could be my mum, my uncles, cities that were the same as my cities. Thinking that could happen to any of us at any time. Accommodating people in hotels, in parks, in Split, in Metković, in different parts of Croatia. Having been in Mostar and crossing the bridge before it was destroyed, the famous ancient bridge of Mostar, and been under shelling in Mostar and looking at houses that were marked because people had a specific origin or religion. It was something that I thought I would never feel so close to. And I guess as a Colombian I felt like this could happen to me as well. This could happen to my family. This could happen anywhere. Then the list goes on and on. I was reporting emergencies in Somalia and I nearly lost my life in Somalia when we were doing a response that was still working for the NGO.
MF: What happened?
FC: We were attacked by technicals. You know the technicals this an armed groups as we were checking for food that was arriving from Australia in the harbour in Port of Mogadishu. We were ambushed and all of the people in the car got injured except me. And I could see the bullets passing through my legs and my head. And I was lucky I wasn’t injured. And we continued working you know. And it happened twice. And then the list goes on. Conflict and not conflict. Also post conflict situations where I had been able to work with repatriation of refugees in a more positive environment. But as far as conflict situations I lived in Nigeria with the IDP (Internally Displaced People) situation of Boko Haram recently. So the victims of the Central African Republic coming, children with injuries in their heads with machete injuries in their heads, women that had been raped. Dramatic conditions that you cannot just imagine and still see the strength and the resilience of these people trying to seek safety and protect their lives.
MF: When you have witnessed all of this, the evil that human beings commit towards others. I mean you were saying machete wounds in children’s heads, women who’ve been raped, people have been tortured, you’ve seen it all. How does that make you feel about humanity?
FC: I don’t know if it comes from my own background you know there has to be always something positive that comes out of the worse. And I think humans in desperation in those conditions you also see the reciprocity of support, the help. Seeing families that have nothing. I saw it in Tanzania with the Burundi crisis just a couple of years ago in a small village that received 55,000 people in a few days. And they said this is the third time these people come and we share everything with them.
So as much as you go through the suffering of what you see, just to see the response by others that encourages you. I don’t think somebody said to me once to be a real humanitarian you need to be a bit of a lawyer, a bit of a cowboy, a bit of a nun, and a bit of a nurse. And I really think that is true you know because you cannot be just a charity person. You need to be strong enough and stay solid enough and look after yourself as well in the middle of crisis to be able to respond. But of course globally it is traumatizing. You know we are in the 21st century, we’re getting into the 22nd century whatever it is, time passes and the atrocities that you see in war, the numbers of refugees around the world it is something that still shocks me. I can’t believe that as an organisation we became a permanent organization, UNHCR. You know we were created in a world that was different. It was mainly for European refugees. They were treated differently and we see that a lot. Sometimes that’s very shocking because the concept of a refugee that created UNHCR and the convention of refugees is probably not applied the same way today as it was in those days.
MF: So the numbers keep growing. But going back to your childhood, I mean, what prompted you to get into refugee work? I mean, you described what it takes to become a humanitarian. Why did it take to become Felipe?
FC: Well I believe a lot in family, family values and origin. My father used to work for the Colombian Institute of Family and Social Welfare. And he covered a part of the country that was very isolated. The Territoriales Nacionales. And when we were kids as teenagers, he would take us into these areas where he was doing social work basically with indigenous groups, with minorities, with areas where there was not necessarily conflict but we saw that life. My mum herself worked all her life as a psychologist for child abuse and I think we were educated in a way to be social workers, to be humanitarians. I remember even the games that my father used to play with us as kids you know. He wanted us to learn the names of the capitals of the world and he would tell us the story of the country. He knew more about Africa than any other Colombian without having put a foot in Africa ever in his life. So it was that interest and that curiosity and I think that generosity that both of them had that made me love this. And I tell you I love it. It’s been something that I left for a while and I tried different things professionally or I was within the context of international humanitarian or development work. But it’s so rewarding and you see the difference in the lives of people, you see what you do, and that is invaluable. I mean, I just saw it with the colleagues in Bangladesh you know, we got exhausted after days of 16-18 hours of work. You come back and you feel “wow” how much did we do today! How many families we managed to help just by registered them, providing them with basic items to cook a meal. That reward has no price.
MF: Personally, in 2010 you experienced a terrible tragedy. Your partner was killed in the earthquake in Haiti when he was also working for the United Nations. How did that affect you?
FC: That changed my life totally, that fractured me. We had been together for 12 years. It was a difficult situation because officially we were not recognized and it took a legal battle even to get that recognition although we were PACS in France. He was a peacemaker. He was passionate about peace. We met in Guatemala in the border between Guatemala and Mexico when he was the head of the field office for MINUGUA, the mission. And I came on a first mission in a helicopter and we met and that was it. And we stayed together for 12 years.
MF: Where were you when you heard the news and how did you react?
FC: I was in New York. I was at that time working for UNICEF. I remember every minute now but I had a blank for years. I really couldn’t remember you know. I received a phone call from another colleague that knew my partner that we were together in Afghanistan and she told me there was an earthquake and it was massive in Haiti. I immediately ran back to the office and I tried to call him several times. There was no answer. And I felt that he was gone. It was very difficult because it took ten days before we had a confirmation. Then of course my heart stopped you know. My life changed from that moment particularly when it was confirmed because I always had hope. There were a lot of confusion. So many people have died. But the power of the love of our friends and my family immediately became something positive. And with all the sadness that I still carry with me, there’s a lot of pride there’s a lot of pride for what we did together, for how we managed to work together, and both been U.N. officers having visited 38 countries in twelve years, having had friends all over the world. There was more than a thousand two hundred messages that I received from all over the world. And friends surrounded me. You know they did everything. I was in a way that I was a bit bossy you know like do these, do that, because I couldn’t do myself many of these things. And it was very beautiful to see that support, that love, that appreciation for what we also transmitted as a couple and as persons and as individuals.
MF: You are making me cry too and I didn’t even know him
FC: But you know what? We were the most loved gay couple in the U.N. you know. From New York to Afghanistan where we started. And we moved together, we met in Guatemala but we were together in Afghanistan. So his death, it brought back a lot of souvenirs as well of my work. And I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that could happen to me and could happen to a hundred and two people that were working for the U.N. in one building that didn’t have the conditions to sustain an earthquake when others did. So it was very upsetting. But I always think that as I said before there’s something that grows back in you. And I think the love that our friends had for us, our families had for us, the solidarity of people with me. I didn’t want it. I didn’t expect it. I was very passive but it was there, it was surrounding me and it was giving me energy every day.
I remember the beautiful ceremony that we did for him in New York, an ecumenical ceremony with five under-secretary generals, 200 people with music, with messages that came from all around the world. And I said: “last night I dreamt with you” and I had a dream that was fantastic. We were in a Colosseum at a party, in a concert by a Colombian singer. And that was the dream. And then we hugged each other and he said: “Go on”. And it took me a while. I thought at some point to leave really this organization, the U.N., I thought of doing something different. And I did that in a way, I took some time off, work on reconstructing myself, establishing something that we wanted to do together in Colombia. He loved Colombia more than his own country, Italy. And I’m very pleased and honored to go to Italy. But it made me realize that life is short. That you cannot simply sit back and wait for these events to happen. I one day decided that I needed to go back to work. And I started again doing emergencies. I went to Cameroon. I went to Lebanon. And it was a revival to come back with the energy, always feeling that the history that we had together was with me. I carry that with me and it gives me the power to continue.
MF: So you were talking earlier about the resilience that you see in refugees who also had experienced terrible loss of family members, and you experienced it yourself and you found that resilience in returning to refugee work.
FC: Absolutely. And I think that is in a way why I don’t think we work for refugees. We work with refugees. And for me that makes a difference you know. The way we approach people, we live, we put ourselves in the shoes of the refugees. For me that’s key. I think that brought me back the desire to continue supporting that, the desire to understand better all these challenges that we face in life that at the end give you more power to continue. And yeah you have ups and downs. I have moments where I feel very emotional about, not coming back to Geneva was difficult because we worked in Geneva before and we had a lot of friends in common. But at the same time I think that resilience is what grows with that suffering that refugees go themselves with the loss of relatives, with the loss of family and friends. As much as many people have the emotional impact, I think there is also a lot of strength.
MF: So Felipe, have you experienced any problems as an LGBTI person working in all of these countries around the world who you know may not be so accepting?
FC: Sure. I mean I have worked in the five continents and I come from Colombia originally and then luckily I had the chance to live in Australia and got Australian citizenship. And it was very interesting to see the different dynamics that existed both socially and legally for LGBTI persons. The world has changed so much that now a lot of us feel more comfortable in different parts of the world but unfortunately there’s many countries, I think that is over 72 countries, that still criminalize LGBT persons. And I had to work in some of these countries, in cultures that are not so opening and accept LGBTI persons. I had to say that I lived through a lot of passive harassment and passive harassment that manifested in the forms of nasty comments from drivers, from the people that we worked with, from the NGOs, from the refugees themselves sometimes you know and not necessarily referring to me. And I had never been targeted with specific aggression for being an LGBTI person. But the perception, the lack of knowledge, the cultural beliefs, and sometimes religious beliefs that consider us to be sinners, consider us to be sick and forget that we are just persons like them. So I have to say yes it wasn’t easy. And I think still for many people is not easy. You know I think that’s why as UNHCR it is so important for us to take action when it comes to LGBTI persecution.
I just saw it recently with one of the reception facilities in southern Europe where there is a group of LGBTI persons that are living with other asylum seekers, with other refugees that come from very restricted or conservative societies, cultures and religions. And they are all mixed and they suffer a lot from abuse, from bad treatment, insults. So I can very closely relate to that even if I had not been myself a victim. But on the other hand is again looking at what is positive. You know these are people that are creative, that are ready to take risks. I have empowered myself from what we are doing in Italy with LGBTI associations and groups because you cannot believe the amount of inspiration. I think when people are confronted to situations of risk, situations of discrimination, they find a lot of power to fight that. So through good examples, I think we can show that as persons, LGBTI people have also a lot to contribute to society.
MF: I think most people in the world you know see their jobs as being in one place, going to work every day, bringing home some money then going to dinner at night or cooking with their family. The idea of going around the world working in places where you might be killed, you might be kidnapped, you’re working 18 hours a day as you described and having to take in the stories and the problems of people who’ve lost everything. What makes somebody who does this kind of work? Is it a special kind of person? Or can you describe that person?
FC: I think there is the need to be something special. That is a combination as I mentioned earlier you know, a combination of strength, compassion, a focus on solutions. I think I grew up thinking of not having problems but solutions. And that is probably a characteristic that I tried to transmit to my colleagues when I worked in emergencies and leading emergency teams. You know we don’t need heroes, we don’t need super-man or super-women to be humanitarians. We need people that are sensible, that are practical, that are human and respectful. I think if you have that, they are basic things. I mean I am a lawyer and I don’t think all lawyers become humanitarians for sure. But I think it is just that combination that at the end gives you what is needed to stay on and continue responding.
I always remember in Tanzania, one colleague came on a mission, on a response mission. After two days, he collapsed. So I took him aside and said I don’t want heroes. You cannot just not look after yourself. You are an example. These people have walked for weeks and you arrived in two days and you pretend that… and he was because he was so full of wanting to do things that he didn’t sleep, he didn’t eat, he didn’t take water, he didn’t look after himself. So I said: “it is as important that you look after yourself then as to look after the refugees. You will not be able to make a difference in the life of people if you don’t look after yourself. If you are not conscious of what you need as well”. And I must say I’ve done it, I’ve done it throughout. I mean, I enjoyed my work. I love it and I don’t sleep sometimes because I’m thinking about what am I going to do tomorrow, how do I solve and address this problem that I face today. Always trying to look at solutions and way forward. But if I am exhausted and I’m about to collapse, I’m the first one to go and take a nap and say to others “go and take nap, take your space,” You need that energy to be able to respond.
MF: These days, as somebody who works in Europe, what keeps you awake at night?
FC: Conflict will not stop and I don’t think the world is doing enough. It’s not just the United Nations, it’s the politicians, it’s the people that select the politicians, it’s us citizens at the end that need to make a difference. Not just for migrants or refugees, but for peace. I think achieving peace and sustaining peace is the challenge that we face today. Displacement yes of course due to natural disasters, climate change will continue to happen, but I think it’s probably even more predictable and easier to respond to that type of crisis than respond to conflict. Rebuilding a destroyed society because of conflict takes decades, generations. I mean you just think of Syria. What would happen in Syria? When would Syria be back to what it was? It was the nest of civilization. And what it has become is just rubble. With very strong society that still believe in what they can offer. I just really hope that there is more consciousness about the impact of conflict. It is not just academics or politicians, it’s all of us at the end you know. How and who do we select to be our leaders makes a difference in the way the world is run. I’m an optimist and I always think that having worked on repatriations and seen the positive side of people going back home, rebuilding their houses in Guatemala, in Afghanistan, in Mozambique, in Myanmar itself was a fantastic experience. The former High Commissioner used to say “it is the most desirable solution” and that is true. Going back home and enjoying your rights back home is the right of every citizen.
MF: Looking back on your career and your life, you have chosen a path as a humanitarian. Do you have any regrets?
FC: None at all. I think several people had asked me that question. And you know there was an answer by Sadako Ogata, the former High Commissioner. It’s not exactly the same question but “where do you feel best as a humanitarian?” and she answered “in the present tense”. And for me you know I think the years where I had my personal loss were difficult but it helped me rebuild myself in a way. It took me away from the work but I came back probably with more energy, more desire and more strength to continue doing it. There’s not a single regret. Some of my family would say “well you should have stay in Colombia and be a minister”. I said thank you very much. I wasn’t interested in being a minister, so there’s absolutely not regret for it. I mean it’s more than 25 years that I have been a humanitarian and mainly a field person and I believe that the heart of our work happens in action, in the field. There is a lot to do from different angles when you want to do humanitarian work.
MF: And you’ve helped so many people. It must be very gratifying.
FC: It’s very gratifying.
MF: You have saved people lives.
FC: You save people lives. You provide people with a shelter. We still need to do more for protection in transit. There’s a lot of people in limbo, at sea, in the desert. And I think that is a gap I feel that still needs to be somehow filled. As a humanitarian, there are still things that I would like to do.
MF: Felipe Camargo thank you very much for this interview.
FC: Thanks Melissa, Thank you so much.