Nansen Refugee Award goes to advocate for boat people in Malta

Maltese lawyer Katrine Camilleri has won a prestigious UNHCR prize for her dedication to helping refugee boat people and her determination to continue in the face of threats that included an arson attack on her car and home.

Lawyer Katrine Camilleri updates a Congolese refugee client on her case.   © UNHCR/A.Pace

GENEVA, September 18 (UNHCR) - Katrine Camilleri has demonstrated her dedication to helping refugees who arrive in Malta, not only in a decade of work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) but in a determination to continue in the face of threats that included an arson attack on her car and home.

The 37-year-old lawyer was named by the UN refugee agency on Tuesday as the 2007 winner of the Nansen Refugee Award, which is given to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees.

"The committee has chosen Dr. Katrine Camilleri of Malta in recognition of her exceptional dedication to the refugee cause and her outstanding contribution through Jesuit Refugee Service in the protection and assistance to refugees," said the official selection decision.

"The committee notes with appreciation the tireless efforts of Dr. Camilleri to lobby and advocate for refugees and is impressed by the political courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta. By rewarding Dr. Camilleri for her civic courage and for the inspiring example set by her actions, the Nansen Refugee Award Committee would like to honour all individuals who are working to improve the well-being of refugees."

The annual award, formerly known as the Nansen Medal, includes a US$100,000 grant from Norway and Switzerland for a refugee-related project of the winner's choice and is scheduled to be presented in October during the annual gathering in Geneva of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee. It is named after Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who was appointed in 1921 by the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, as the first High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Katrine Camilleri has worked courageously to protect refugees and asylum seekers," said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Dr. Camilleri and JRS are key partners in helping UNHCR to fulfil our goal of assisting governments to identify refugees caught in migratory movements and responding to their needs."

Born in 1970 on the Mediterranean island of Malta, Camilleri came into contact with refugees when she began working in a small law firm after graduating from the University of Malta in 1994. After helping to prevent the deportation of a Libyan asylum seeker who risked persecution if returned home, her interest grew and in 1997 she started to work with the Malta office of JRS.

First as a volunteer, then part-time and eventually full-time, Camilleri helped to expand JRS's assistance. In 2000, she was referred the case of an asylum seeker in detention and others soon came forward to ask for legal assistance. JRS became the first organization to offer a professional legal service on a regular basis to detainees.

In 2002, the number of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in Malta by boat increased sharply - a problem faced by European countries around the Mediterranean. Believing asylum seekers in detention to be in the greatest need, JRS shifted its focus increasingly to the detention centres.

Camilleri, a mother of two, devoted her energy to expanding JRS services, securing funding to employ more professional staff and to set up projects offering social work, health and education services to all refugees, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

Camilleri leads the JRS Malta legal team of two lawyers and two case workers, which - apart from handling asylum claims - challenges detention in individual cases and monitors the treatment of those in the centres. Conscious of the need for more lawyers trained in refugee law, Camilleri helped set up a study unit for law students at the University of Malta in which students take cases, thus coming into contact with asylum seekers.

With the rise in the number of asylum seekers reaching Malta, irregular migration has become a high profile political issue. JRS raises public awareness about refugees, the right to asylum and intercultural issues. However, there has been a violent backlash from some people, which has shocked Maltese and drawn condemnation from the government.

Over the last year, JRS and 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 Camilleri's car and her front door, terrifying her family trapped inside.

The incident, she said, has shattered her own children's sense of invulnerability, but has not altered her desire to help asylum seekers risking their lives in flimsy boats to reach safety.

"I'm always impressed by how much hope they have and how much capacity in a sense, not only to keep hoping against hope, but to really make things happen," Camilleri told UNHCR.