Su Anne Lee ’17 LL.M.
2016–2017 Human Rights Fellow
After graduating from England’s University of Sheffield, Su Anne Lee ’17 LL.M. returned to her hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to work for a law firm. She handled the usual array of matters in corporate and commercial law, from mergers and other corporate transactions to restructurings.
The job was interesting, Lee says, but she couldn’t stop thinking about a position she had just before starting at the law firm: As a volunteer at a local NGO, she had assisted refugees from Aceh, Indonesia, who lived in poor urban areas of Kuala Lumpur.
“I had never known that there were populations of refugees in Malaysia and the kinds of issues they faced,” Lee says. “That opened my eyes, and pretty much stayed with me throughout my practice. I decided I really wanted to see if I could work with the vulnerable communities I had helped before—which was very different from what I was doing.”
Lee left the firm in 2008 to take a position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The bulk of her job has been to determine, through face-to-face interviews and research, whether asylum seekers are eligible for refugee status under international law. Without that designation, they can face arrest or be sent back to their home country.
The work is particularly significant in Malaysia, Lee says, because there is no national legal framework to protect the rights of refugees, even as people continue to flock there from Syria and other conflict areas. Lee is careful to note that while the refugee population is often portrayed by the media as a burden or security threat, “it is also one of the most resilient, and it has been really inspiring to see that in my work.”
Her goal as a Human Rights Fellow is to gain a broader view of the issues surrounding immigration and refugee rights, so she can translate her experience into legal policy and advocacy.
“I want to help create systemic change, to have a more lasting impact on the situation of refugees in Malaysia,” she says.