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Executives visit UNHCR projects in Africa and pledge more help

News Stories, 27 February 2009

© Courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers/Age Flintman
Refugee kids meet the UNHCR Council of Business leaders party at Osire camp in Namibia.

GENEVA, Switzerland, February 27 (UNHCR) Some of UNHCR's top business partners have pledged to continue supporting the UN refugee agency despite the world's most severe economic crisis in decades. The promise came when members of UNHCR's Council of Business Leaders visited Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa last week.

In what has become almost an annual event, top executives from Manpower, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Microsoft and Young & Rubicam took time off from their busy schedules to visit UNHCR field operations and get a first-hand view of life for displaced people and how the agency is helping them.

This year the four participating Council members visited the three countries in southern Africa, where they met and talked to refugees in camps as well as those living in urban areas such as Johannesburg.

The trip kicked off February 16 in the South African capital, Pretoria, where they toured a refugee reception centre and UNHCR's regional office. They then went to Namibia, visiting Osire Refugee Camp. In Mozambique the group met refugees in Marratane Camp before returning to South Africa, where they wrapped up their five-day visit after travelling to the city of Musina, near the Beit Bridge border crossing with Zimbabwe.

The executives were particularly struck by what they saw in Musina, where UNHCR helps the South African government at a Refugee Reception Office set up last year to handle the increased volume of Zimbabweans crossing the border to seek asylum.

"The processing is taking far too long and people are kept in these desperate situations for far too long a time," Jonathan Murray, who heads Microsoft's technology officer network, commented after visiting the centre. He said the Council would work with UNHCR to address this issue.

David Arkless, president of corporate and government affairs at Manpower, also pledged continuing help, saying his company would make "every effort to work with UNHCR to help bring some new kinds of solutions to situations like this."

In Mozambique's Marratane camp, which houses 5,000 mainly Congolese and Burundian refugees, the executives saw staff use the registration software programme, ProGres, which was developed by Microsoft for UNHCR and is now used in more than 50 countries.

"There are lots of other things you can use the application for and we are looking to assist UNHCR with that. Things like assistance, technical skills development, microfinance, tracking for loans that are made for refugees," Microsoft's Murray said. "All that capability is in that product today and it can really be leveraged to help refugees," he added.

Another outcome of the mission was a commitment by the Council to work with companies in South Africa to fight against illegal labour and to allow refugees to work in decent conditions.

"We want to start a business council that will ask other corporations to check their own company and their supply chains for any illegal labour or abused labour," said Arkless, whose company is the world's largest employment agency.

Last week's mission concluded on Friday with a roundtable meeting with managers of South Africa-based branches of Burson-Marsteller, Manpower, Microsoft, Nike and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in addition to representatives from major law firms, businesses and foundations with operations in South Africa.

In the coming months, the refugee agency hopes to work with all of these partners to create a South African Council of Business Leaders that will hopefully play a constructive role alongside UNHCR in finding durable solutions for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

UNHCR's Council of Business leaders, grouping Manpower, Microsoft, Nike, PricewaterhouseCoopers and WPP, was set up in 2005 to advise UNHCR on how to be more business-like in carrying out its humanitarian work.

By Jerome Nhan in Geneva, Switzerland

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UNHCR country pages

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

"Do You See What I See?" Exploring the words and photographs of refugee children

For more than a year, a collection of startling photographs taken by refugee children in Namibia and Yemen has been travelling the world, giving a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil at such a young age.

Professional photographer Brendan Bannon conducted the "Do You See What I See" project for the UN refugee agency in Yemen's Kharaz Refugee Camp and Namibia's Osire Refugee Camp.

He ran a series of intensive two-week photo workshops for a dozen children in each camp. Bannon guided them through a series of exercises that focused on the self, the community, the family and dreams. Here are some of the amazing results.

"What emerges in these pictures is a commentary on humanity - proposing what to them is love, what is suffering, what is funny, what can be discovered about self, family, history and community: What makes us alike and what makes us different," Bannon wrote.

A travelling photo exhibition was put together and has been seen by thousands of people around the world. It is now showing at the United Nations in New York, but the photo exhibition has never been shown on UNHCR's website before.

"Do You See What I See?" Exploring the words and photographs of refugee children

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South AfricaPlay video

Surviving in the City: Pretoria, South Africa

Living in Pretoria as a refugee or asylum-seeker is challenging. Most either live rough on the streets or in cramped apartments in townships. There are also tensions with locals because of the perception that foreigners get a better deal than South African citizens.
Top business partners renew supportPlay video

Top business partners renew support

Executives from Manpower, Young & Rubicam, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft visit UNHCR operations in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
Zimbabweans in South AfricaPlay video

Zimbabweans in South Africa

While Zimbabwe's main political rivals have agreed to hold power-sharing talks, there are continued reports of instability and violence in the country. The flow of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in neigbouring South Africa is growing, rather than ebbing. The UN refugee agency reports that there are more and more women and children joining the exodus.