Who would want to do an internship in Iraq or Nigeria? Students on the Disaster Studies Master’s track. They feel they should do research in high-risk areas as part of a degree focussing on life in such places. The university understands their wish but sets limits. Which can cause frustration.
The Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs’ travel advice as of 30 August 2016. Red regions are out of bounds to Wageningen students and staff; for ‘orange’ areas each case is considered on its own merits. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
‘It is not that we send our students off to high-risk areas; they are keen to go there themselves,’ says assistant professor Gemma van der Haar, until recently internship coordinator for the Disaster Studies Master’s track, which is part of the Master’s in International Development Studies. ‘Many of the students who choose this Master’s track – 20 to 25 last year – have been actively involved in a particular issue and know what they are doing when they specialize in this field.’ One such student is Pier Hiemstra. ‘I wanted to go to a conflict zone to test myself.’ At first he had Somalia and South Sudan in mind, but these countries are coloured red on the world map at the ministry of Foreign Affairs: no go. In such cases, Wageningen University will not approve an internship or field research trip (see box). ‘So in the end I went to Nigeria,’ says Pier.
The Master’s student spent seven weeks in Jos and Mangu in central Nigeria, doing his thesis research with support from a local researcher. Tens of thousands of people were murdered in this region between 1999 and 2004, and even today tensions between Muslims and Christians regularly lead to violence. Pier studied the way various institutions collaborate on peacekeeping efforts. ‘I interviewed mayors, village chiefs and local people. Some of them were very friendly and grateful that I wanted to interview them; others were very suspicious. A lot of people are wary, afraid of getting into trouble.’
Actually I was scared all the time in Nigeria,’ says Pier. ‘It bothered me that I couldn’t rely on my own instincts. In the Netherlands I think I can tell who is well-intentioned and who isn’t. In Nigeria I couldn’t judge that, so I tended to see everyone as a potential threat. And it is more dangerous there because there are weapons everywhere and people are trigger-happy.’
The secret service once paid Pier a visit in his hotel. ‘They had already been following me around for half a day. I then phoned a friend in the Netherlands and said, if I don’t call you again at such and such a time, things might have gone wrong. In your mind you are ready for the worst case scenario. The consequences of a false move are bigger than in the Netherlands.’
In the end Pier came home early. ‘I did the work in seven weeks that was planned for two and a half months. At first it felt like a failure but later I realized that I couldn’t help the way I experienced it.’
Piers’ fellow student Peter Goedbloed did not experience this level of anxiety during his stay in Duhok, a city in northern Iraq. He worked there for seven months for the aid organization Dorcas. ‘Duhok is relatively rich: there is a shopping centre with a Carrefour and shops selling western clothes. Everyone drives expensive Land Cruisers. The atmosphere during the period I was there was relaxed. Expats drive their cars themselves, walk around the bazaar alone and hold pub quizzes in the hotel. There are checkpoints but the atmosphere was never menacing.’
And yet Peter’s stay there was certainly not without risks. Terrorist attacks take place all over Iraq. There is heavy fighting between extremist groups (including IS) and the Iraqi armed forces. ‘I was close to the frontline: Mosul is less than 75 kilometres away. In the far north Kurdish rebels are under fire from the Turkish army. Once when I was on a trip to distribute fertilizer I saw pillars of smoke going up from a village ahead of me. Probably an air raid on IS.’
Peter’s original plan was to do research in northern Iraq on the refugee situation. ‘There are very many refugees in and around Duhok. They live in refugee camps, in abandoned or unfinished buildings, or with friends or family. I wanted to know why these people didn’t move on from here.’ But the university turned down his research proposal because the situation was considered too dangerous. ‘Whereas I experienced Duhok as an oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic region.’
The rejection was extra-frustrating for Peter because the plan was to accompany his wife. ‘She was going to do a traineeship with Dorcas. In the run-up to our departure I didn’t get any hints that I wouldn’t get approval, so we had already sold our car and given notice on our rented accommodation. I heard that I couldn’t go to Iraq for my research just a few days before my departure. Not going was just not an option at that point. I dropped out of my degree programme and got a job with Dorcas.’ Not for a moment did he feel in danger. ‘What is more, I think it was safer in Duhok than in many other places that students are allowed to go to.’
Whereas Peter did not get formal approval for his research in northern Iraq, fellow student Jan van ’t Land did get the go-ahead for research in the same region, in the city of Erbil. He spent two weeks there doing research for his thesis with a local NGO, which he does not want to name for security reasons. ‘The IS frontline was 40 kilometres away. So I was close to the war but I didn’t feel in danger. The border with the war zone is clearly demarcated. I saw no sign of the war and hardly saw any military on the streets. Only there were refugees in a camp just a stone’s throw from my hotel and I did see a lot of military planes and helicopters. But the city itself was relatively safe. I could just do my own thing, even walking on the streets at night and eating out in restaurants.’
Jan was vigilant though. ‘The NGO gave me a security briefing, because something could happen at any time. There are IS cells in that city and one and a half years ago a car bomb went off in front of the American consulate. The NGO put me up in a smaller hotel, which is safer than a large hotel full of internationals. And whenever I ate out I made sure I kept an eye of the door of the restaurant, and I always read the NGO’s security updates.’
Before leaving for Iraq Jan had to write a ‘security analysis’ saying how he would make sure he worked safely and sensibly. ‘I don’t think the average African capital is any safer that Erbil, but the fact is the Dutch government’s travel advice codes most of Iraq orange.’ Jan understands the university’s wish to assess whether the risks are acceptable. Only that turned out to be quite difficult. ‘With hindsight my security analysis was too strict. I had said I would hold all the interviews at the NGO’s office but that wasn’t necessary. I went to other neighbourhoods with my interpreter, including the city centre and some Muslim neighbourhoods. My interpreter was an Iraqi woman who knew the city very well.’
Jan did have to be careful what he said, and couldn’t take photographs. ‘I wasn’t allowed to have my photo taken with other people either, and now I’ve got to remove any references in my thesis with which people could be identified. I talked to several people who didn’t let me record anything because they fear reprisals. I am glad that I learned how you should deal with these kinds of situations in Wageningen on the course on Fieldwork in conflict and post-conflict settings. As a researcher you are constantly faced with ethical dilemmas and you must never put your respondents in any danger.’
Jan learned a lot from his stay in northern Iraq, including that working in conflict zones suits him. ‘I enjoy working in this kind of environment. I like working in tense situations. That’s why these weeks were an important test case for me.’
So he is glad the university gave him this opportunity. ‘I see it as positive that the university takes the time to assess each student’s case individually. I hope it will stay that way in the future, because for me and many other students Disaster Studies is a conscious choice. A thesis and an internship in disaster and conflict zones are a good preparation for our careers after the Master’s.’
However, Jan did find the procedure for the security analysis unclear and time-consuming. ‘You hand in an analysis, and it gets discussed with your supervisor in the department. Then it disappears to the executive board. At that point it’s just a case of ‘wait and see’ and you don’t get a chance to explain your analysis.’
Deciding whether to go to a conflict zone
Students and staff at Wageningen University & Research who want to go to a region with a negative travel advice from the ministry of Foreign Affairs must, according to rules brought in last year, get permission from their science group and the executive board. They fill in a security analysis explaining how they will make sure they can work safely and sensibly. This plans goes to the science group management and the board. Wageningen tends to be less cautious than other academic institutions, but ‘red’ areas such as Somalia and Syria are out of bounds. For ‘orange’ zones each case is considered on its own merits.
In the past the decision was made by the chair group in question. ‘We would consult experts about the security situation and study the local situation,’ says assistant professor of the Sociology of Development and Change Gemma van der Haar, until recently internship coordinator for the Disaster Studies Master’s track. ‘We also considered the student’s character.’
Van der Haar thinks it is a pity the chair group is not involved in the new procedure. ‘I really appreciate it that the university takes its security policy seriously – that is part of our obligation to look after our students. It is also positive that the management and the board are prepared to weigh up each case separately for orange regions, because a categorical ‘no’ would be a lot less acceptable. But I don’t like the top-down way the security policy was brought in without involving us as teachers. And it is problematic that the final decision is made by people who might not know anything about this subject.’
Rector Arthur Mol does not deny the expertise of the chair group involved. According to him, the specific knowledge of chair groups is still used to draw up a good plan. But he believes the final decision has to be made centrally for the sake of consistency across the institution. ‘We can’t have it happening that one chair group gets to go to northern Ethiopia and another one is told ‘no’. It’s got to be consistent.’ The process was still in the startup phase last year, admits Mol. This might explain why students have complained about how long it takes. But as experience is gained, it will go faster, Mol expects. ‘Nobody wants delays in graduating.’