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Nansen medal for refugee activists from four continents

Press Releases, 3 November 2000

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today said this year's Nansen Medal, the refugee agency's annual award, will go to four former exiles who have helped the refugee cause in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

In a departure from the usual practice of awarding only one medal, the Nansen Committee this year granted four decorations to mark the 50th anniversary of UNHCR.

The awardees are:

  • His Holiness Abune Paulos, the Orthodox Patriarch of Ethiopia, renowned scholar and peace advocate and a former exile in the United States who has worked on reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea;
  • Dr. Lao Mong Hay, a leading Cambodian intellectual and pro-democracy activist who had been a refugee in Britain and who now heads the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh.
  • Jelena Silajdzic, a Bosnian film producer and refugee advocate in the Czech Republic who has worked with refugees from the Balkans.
  • Argentine virtuoso pianist, Miguel Angel Estrella, a former victim of the Argentine junta exiled to Paris who has used his stature as an artist to promote the refugee cause.

"We are marking half a century of UNHCR's work by awarding four people from four continents, whose own bitter experience of persecution and exile inspired them to help others." said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.

The medals will be awarded in separate ceremonies in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Prague and Buenos Aires in the course of the coming weeks.

The Nansen Medal Award was launched in 1955 by UNHCR's first High Commissioner G.J. van Heuven Goedhart. It is named after the famous Norwegian polar explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize for Peace.

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Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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