Maltese lawyer receives Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva ceremony

News Stories, 1 October 2007

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Katrine Camilleri accepts the Nansen medal from High Commissioner António Guterres.

GENEVA, October 1 (UNHCR) The prestigious Nansen Refugee Award was presented to lawyer Katrine Camilleri in Geneva on Monday evening for her work in helping refugees arriving in the Mediterranean island of Malta and her refusal to be cowed by threats from those opposed to her work.

"We are all privileged to be able to give the Nansen Refugee Award to an angel," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said before handing over the award in front of scores of guests.

In accepting the award, Camilleri, aged 37, paid tribute to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malta, whose legal department she heads in representing the interests of asylum seekers who face detention after arriving in Malta.

"It is an honour that I share with every member of Jesuit Refugee Service throughout the world; when one of us is honoured all of us are honoured because we share the same mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people." Guterres also praised JRS as a very valuable partner for UNHCR.

The annual award, which comes with a medal and a cash prize of US$100,000 funded by Norway and Switzerland, is given out yearly to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes.

Camilleri said she planned to use the money to consolidate JRS projects and develop new services. These included information DVDs in different languages to reach asylum seekers, especially women, with a low level of literacy; to establish a legal fund to help asylum seekers access courts; and to fund the training and use of cultural mediators.

The Nansen Refugee Award committee said it had selected Camilleri "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 and displaced persons."

The committee noted Camilleri's tireless efforts to lobby and advocate for refugees and said it was impressed by the political courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta.

Born in 1970, 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.

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.

She now 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. The incident, she said, had not altered her desire to help asylum seekers risking their lives in flimsy boats to reach safety.

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 Japanese optometrist Akio Kanai of Fuji Optical, who in the past two decades has improved the quality of life of more than 100,000 uprooted people around the world by testing their eyes and providing them with free spectacles.