Five Minutes With – Naomi Steer

By Danielle Pope

Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer at the Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya near the South Sudan border;  CREDIT/ Australia for UNHCR
Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer at the Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya near the South Sudan border; CREDIT/ Australia for UNHCR
For World Refugee Day, we speak with the National Director of Australia for the UN Refugee Agency on the current crises facing refugees and how we can help

Ms Naomi Steer has been the National Director of Australia for UNHCR for almost 17 years. She has extensive experience on the ground in refugee situations such as Uganda, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Chad and East Timor. Ms Steer shared her experiences with MiNDFOOD for World Refugee Day.

How did you come to work with the UNHCR?

I was brought up in a family where we were all encouraged, even as young kids, to do what we could to make a difference. That was very much our family ethos and so as a kid I was out there doing door knocks and fundraising for different appeals.

In the long term, I had no idea that I wanted to end up here in this job, but I always knew I wanted to do something globally with diverse communities and using the opportunities I had to make a difference. My very first job was actually in foreign affairs as a diplomat, and I was posted to the UN human rights committee in New York. In this role, I was dealing with issues around gender, women and refugees and to some extent that sort of came to define the areas of interest that I pursued.

What is involved in your role as National Director?

It is a job that has continually changed ever since I first took it on nearly 17 years ago. It has grown from literally being just me as one person with a filing cabinet, to managing an organisation of 140 staff and 100,000 active donors. In that time too, we have gone from being a fundraising organisation to also being a body that creates public awareness and is an advocacy body for refugees. Our main role is to raise funds and support for Australia’s involvement in UNHCR projects.

How can people get involved and help out?

We really encourage people to give regular donations where they can, as that is the best way that the UNHCR can deal with a crisis. We are dealing with more global emergencies than ever before. When I first started you might have an emergency every two to three years, but now we are experiencing these sorts of scales every second month.

So the best way that people can support the UNHCR is to ensure that the organisation has sustained support, so that when they have emergencies they can provide immediate food, shelter and water, without having to wait to raise the money. This is so important because the first 72 hours of any emergency can literally be the life and death trap.

What are some of the crises that the UNHCR is currently working to overcome?

There is a very big food crisis across the Horn of East Africa at the moment and our donors have very generous raised more than $1 million for that. There is a huge need for more support in this area, particularly in Uganda which is the largest host country of refugees across Africa, with people fleeing conflict and famine.

Another major area is unaccompanied children. That is probably a big phenomena of recent emergencies, where so many children during conflict are being separated from their families, either during the fighting or being sent ahead because it is safer. In every settlement you go to, you are struck by how many kids there are by themselves who are extremely vulnerable.

So there is a huge focus in our work on protection of these children, trying to get foster homes for them, reintegrate them with education and of course, reunifying them with their families where possible.

Refugee students inside their classroom at the Bujubuli secondary school in Kyaka II Refugee Settlement in Kyegegwa District in western Uganda, May 25, 2017. Photo Credit/Australia for UNHCR

How do you personally deal with the more confronting aspects of your job?

I do try to go with the “glass half full” mentality, because every case we see is very motivating for us. We are passionate about what we do because we see that if people are given assistance and the opportunity, not only can we change lives, but we can also help save them. We continue to see examples of that again and again, so for me that is the really optimistic part of it.

If you could change one thing about the national discussion around refugees, what would it be?

I think Australians are generally supportive of refugees. We are seeing a lot of support through our organisation, particularly from the younger generations.  I think I would just ask Australians to reach out and make a connection with a refugee, as someone they can help. I think when people experience that and see how they can help, particularly with practical help, that really brings the stories home.

Australia for UNHCR has launched an appeal to provide protection to the record number of refugee children forced to flee conflict alone – without their parents or family.

To find out how you can help and donate head to or by calling 1300 361 288.


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