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UK Alum to Speak on Campus About Her Work With the Migrants in Cambodia as Part of a United Nations Team

By Richard LeComte

Alix McIntosh

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Lexington native Alix McIntosh, a project officer in Cambodia with the United Nations' International Organization for Migration, will be speaking at an awards ceremony for the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences International Studies Program at 3:30 p.m. Friday, April 19, in the Grand Courtroom of the Rosenberg Law Building. The event is open to the public.

McIntosh works as a project officer for counter trafficking in persons at an office in Phnom Penh. She graduated from UK in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Arabic and Islamic Studies. She served with the U.N. in Egypt for four years, then earned a master’s degree in human rights and democratization, international law and legal studies from the Global Campus of Human Rights in Europe. She took her current post in Cambodia after she graduated from the master’s program. Her office works with vulnerable migrants and victims of trafficking in Cambodia to reintegrate in their communities or return to their countries of origin. 

She recently discussed her job, her passion for human rights and how UK helped her to find her career path. 

What drew you to studying International Relations and Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies? 

I read a book right after high school about the Siege of Mecca back in 1979 (when some 100,000 pilgrims were trapped for two weeks inside the holy city of Islam), and I realized how little I knew about the region. I was really intrigued. I knew I wanted to pursue international studies. Because I spoke Spanish, I thought I would focus on Latin America. But since I wanted to study human rights and humanitarian work, I thought the Arab regions would be really interesting and applicable.

Who were the faculty members who influenced you the most at UK? 

First there’s Dr. Francis Musoni (director of the College’s International Studies Program and associate professor of history). I stayed in touch with him after I left. He knew I was really passionate about modern-day slavery, and he let me talk to one of his classes about that in a little impromptu speech. And then there’s Dr. Ihsan Bagby (emeritus associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies). I think I took all of his courses as well. And Dr. Ghadir Zannoun was my Arabic teacher and the professor who oversaw my study abroad. She was phenomenal. 

How did you come to work for the U.N. in Cambodia? 

My partner is Singaporean, and we decided we would like to be in Asia. My dream job opened up in Cambodia, and I was very lucky. 

What does your job entail?

I focus largely on human trafficking.  I work with Cambodians who are trafficked inside Cambodia or in other countries, and migrants trafficked in or through the region. 

Are there specific industries that are more prone to abusing migrants?

There's a lot of trafficking of migrants in the region in forced labor and sexual exploitation. The fishing industry is horrendous; the violence and exploitation that happens on the boats is brutal. And then, right now, the really big issue is the (Internet) scam compounds in Southeast Asia.

Is there a particular area you’re focused on? 

A lot of the work I do now addresses trafficking at the policy level with the government doing prevention work with communities that are vulnerable to being exploited and trafficked. We also try to rescue and give assistance to people who have been trafficked. We’re trying to reintegrate them in their communities of origin and reduce their vulnerability to being trafficked or abused again in the future.

What are your facilities like?

We have quite a small office in Cambodia. We have the third floor of an office building, and our office there has a big medical facility. We have a lot of doctors on staff, and we do different medical assistance to migrant and Cambodian communities there. Most of what we do is through partners. We work with a local shelter to provide housing to victims, particularly foreign victims who are waiting to be repatriated. 

 What challenges do people who are returning face? 

Not surprisingly, women usually have the biggest issues with social acceptance and reintegration when there has been, or communities believe there’s been sexual exploitation. There can be physical and psychological effects people have to overcome if they’ve experienced physical violence, torture, or abuse; and of course economic issues that made people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place create a lot of issues for return and successful reintegration. 

What kinds of aid can you give?

People who are trafficked generally are vulnerable to begin with, so there's a level of socio-economic vulnerability to most of these communities that we can't fully address in with the capacity that we have. We provide psychological assistance and psycho-social support as well as medical assistance to them, safe shelter and food and other basic needs in country. We are often able to support their return to their countries of origin, and once there sometimes a small reintegration program. Our office in the country of origin will help build a reintegration plan for them. It could be for continual medical care, housing or education, or it could be seed money for an income-generating activity. 

What advice would you give UK students who want to pursue a job with the United Nations or other international organization? 

If they were eyeing international work, what I tell people is that it’s hard to be a generalist if you want to work for the U.N. If you are willing to work for a nongovernment organization, such as a smaller community level group, you can go in as a generalist and build experience that way. If you want to work for the U.N., you should figure out what specific work or expertise you’d like to do and build relevant experience and skills. I was lucky. I knew that I wanted to work on trafficking. I knew I wanted to work in migrant protection, and I pursued jobs before my dream job that helped me develop the skills I needed for the dream job.