2006 Nansen Refugee Award goes to Japanese man with global vision

Press Releases, 4 July 2006

Geneva, Tuesday 4 July 2006

GENEVA The U.N. refugee agency today announced that the 2006 Nansen Refugee Award will go to Dr. Akio Kanai, a Japanese optometrist who over more than two decades has improved the quality of life of over 100,000 uprooted people around the world by testing their eyes and providing them with spectacles.

The Nansen Refugee Award Committee selected Dr. Kanai, Chairman and CEO of Fuji Optical Co. Ltd., for his practical commitment to humanitarian work and dedication to easing the plight of refugees by improving their eyesight. The committee found Dr. Kanai had "rendered exceptional service to the refugee cause" and had made a huge and genuine contribution to uprooted people in human as well as financial terms. Dr. Kanai's company is based in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees.

"Tens of thousands of displaced people living in extremely difficult circumstances have been given a new outlook on life thanks to Dr. Kanai," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "The gift of sight is precious. Restoring it makes a huge difference in individual lives, making learning possible for children and adults and pulling them back from the fringes of marginalisation."

Dr. Kanai, himself forcibly displaced from the northern Pacific island of Sakhalin during the turmoil at the end of World War II, started his humanitarian optometry work in 1983 in Thailand with Indo-Chinese refugees, many of whom had lost or broken their glasses while fleeing. Many were undergoing courses ahead of being resettled to the United States and needed glasses to study. Dr. Kanai checked the sight of the refugees, and in doing so, started a long engagement with refugee work.

He began cooperating with UNHCR in 1984, and has since conducted more than 24 missions to help uprooted people in Nepal, Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. He has donated over 108,200 pairs of glasses, provided optometry equipment, made cash grants and trained local medical staff. Fuji Optical Co. Ltd. is UNHCR's longest-serving corporate partner.

Dr. Kanai's family and his staff are also involved in Fuji Optical's Vision Aid missions. Some 70 employees have taken part in the aid missions, using their holidays to work in refugee camps.

The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the celebrated Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Graça Machel. Last year, the award went to Margarita Barankitse, also known as the 'Angel of Burundi,' in recognition of her work with separated children whose lives have been devastated by war and the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

The award, which includes a US$100,000 grant from Norway and Switzerland for a refugee-related project of the winner's choice, is scheduled to be officially presented at a ceremony in Geneva in early October at the annual gathering of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee.

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The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency's Nansen Awards Committee has named Dr. Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, as the winner of the 2007 Nansen Refugee Award. The Committee was impressed by the political and civic courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Dr. Camilleri first became aware of the plight of refugees as a 16-year-old girl when a priest visited her school to talk about his work. After graduating from the University of Malta in 1994, she began working in a small law firm where she came into contact with refugees. As Dr. Camilleri's interest grew in this humanitarian field, she started to work with the JRS office in Malta in 1997.

Over the last year, JRS and Dr. Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Dr. Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family. The perpetrators were never caught but the attacks shocked Maltese society and drew condemnation from the Government of Malta. Dr. Camilleri continues to lead the JRS Malta legal team as Assistant Director.

2007 Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

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