Sebastiaan Boonstra - Research and Reporting Officer IOM
Sebastiaan Boonstra graduated from the bachelor IRIO in 2014 and later on did a master in Humanitarian action in Groningen and Dublin. He currently lives in Kabul and works as a DTM Research and Reporting Officer, through the Junior Professional Officer programme, at the International Organization of Migration. In this interview he gives a more detailed insight of his current position, his career path and how it is to be working in Afghanistan.
What does your Job entail? I currently work for IOM in Afghanistan at position on migration and data. This means I work on the DTM (Displacement Tracking Matrix), which is a big data collection program aimed at giving a complete overview of human mobility in the country, including internal displacement, movement in and out of the country, monitoring whether or not border crossing points are open and how migration influences the spread of communicable diseases in the country, like COVID-19. Furthermore, DTM is also aimed at asking information from affected populations about their acute humanitarian needs, like food, shelter and socio-cultural aspects. DTM also covers other migration-related fields such as smuggling and human trafficking.
In Afghanistan there currently is a lot of forced migration. Most Afghans, around 4.7 million, are internally displaced. There is a lot of movement within the country, especially towards the urban centres. To give you some perspective, about ten years ago, the population of Kabul was around 600.000, but currently the population is around 6 million. Other than that, many migrants go to neighbouring countries, like Pakistan (two million) and Iran (three million). Migration to Europe is just a fraction of this overall picture, a few hundred thousand Afghans applied for refugees staying in Europe this year. This is because most people can`t afford the journey to Europe, as it is very expensive (costing around 10,000 USD per individual, and is a arduous, dangerous journey to embark upon).
How is it to be working in Afghanistan? Currently it is not safe to work in Afghanistan. All people working for the International Organization of Migration live together in one building and we have armed guards, bomb dogs, fingerprint ID’s, glass doors and snipers guarding the building. I am not allowed to go anywhere outside without armed escort, and we move around in armed vehicles. When I previously worked for Samuel Hall in Kabul, it was a bit easier for me to move around and go into the city, but working for the UN makes you a target. Nevertheless, in these days, you will be a target anyways if you are a foreigner in Afghanistan. This is not only the case in Afghanistan, but in many countries were the UN is active, because a lot of the jobs for the UN are emergency based – this is important to know for students studying IR and are thinking about a career within the UN system. Within the system of the United Nations, countries like Afghanistan are where most jobs are available, but Afghanistan in particular, is also one of the most dangerous and therefore isolating places to work. Hence, every six weeks, I have one week of holiday, during which I like to travel the world. Right now this is of course not possible given the current corona situation.
What did your career path look like? I started working for the European Union and then got lucky by getting an internship for the IOM, where I work now as well. The first time I opened my book for history of international relations and read the preamble of the United Nations Charter, I knew I wanted to work here. Before my current position at the IOM, I worked for a think thank called Samuel Hall, but I always knew I wanted to come back to work at the UN. Samuel Hall is a much smaller organization that is active in about 7 countries and entails smaller research, which was also not always on a national level. I knew I wanted to work for a larger organization where I would gain more experience and I would get more managing responsibilities.
What was the moment your career took off? My career path was also a bit of luck. I was not always a very good student during the first two years of my studies, more focused on engaging with students life and the many fraternities Groningen calls home. I was unable to get my Propedeuse during my first year, for example. Being part of two fraternities and two disputes meant that I did not spend a lot of time studying In my third and fourth year everything changed and I started to get good grades and I became more career focused. Looking back, I think those first two years were actually well spent, as you learn other skills that I’ve needed throughout my career. If you find yourself in Geneva talking to Diplomats about the war in Syria, you need a certain level of “bravoure” to make an impact and convince people. I’ll give an example down below. During my Master’s, I was lucky enough to get into the NOHA programme after someone else dropped out. This is an EU funded masters focussing on the humanitarian sector, which is a very specialized study program and helps you getting good networking opportunities. Here I got the opportunity to get an internship in Geneva at delegation of the European Union and later at the United Nations. In Geneva I was also invited to a reception of the UN, where I got to talk to the head of HR of the IOM, who first mistook me for a diplomat. We had a very pleasant talk and she offered me a paid internship for the IOM, which is where my career really took off. If I likely had not spent those first two years learning social skills during my bachelors, this opportunity likely would have never presented itself.
What aspects from your IRIO-Background helped you in your current job? I think several things from IRIO can help you. Every job needs some basic skills, like being able to write well, read fast and to be able to do basic math and use excel. IRIO definitely helped me becoming a good writer and reader, but unfortunately, I was never taught advanced maths or how to work with formulas, budgets or timelines in excel. That is why, while working for Samuel Hall, I decided to do a one-week crash course on excel in Maastricht. Most of my technical skills I learned on the job. Use your time as a student to delve into theories you find interesting, reading the original works of authors is also something I would recommend – as reading the compulsory summaries does not always bring sufficient detail about a certain topic.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career? The first few years are always difficult, because it can be challenging to find a job or internship. Many internships, just like my first one I did at the EU, are unpaid. The first two years you often go from internship to internship that pay very little, but if you later on do get a position at the United Nations or another NGO, you will earn enough money. Working abroad definitely also has its downsides and I believe that there are very few people that can have a family life next to this kind of job.
Do you have any advice for current IR students? It is definitely important to be flexible and to be open to different kinds of opportunities, if you want to work in my field. It can for instance be smart to go to places other people don’t want to go. Of course, you will always need a bit of luck and you should be persevere. The worse the world will be doing, the more work there will be in this sector.
What is Afghanistan like outside of work and professional life? While I worked for Samuel Hall here in Kabul I was able to walk through the city. It kind of looks like any third world country, in all honesty, and most parts of the city are dirty and poor. However, if you go out of the city, the country is stunningly beautiful. Afghanistan has a beautiful ancient culture and it is one of the last places Alexander the Great has been to. It’s deep culture even stretches back, before the arrival of Islam in the region, to ancient Greek and Buddhist influences. It is a very cultured country that, unfortunately, has had to endure over 70 years of warfare.