Millions mark World Refugee Day with theme of "Protection"

News Stories, 20 June 2008

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
Sudanese refugees dance for High Commissioner António Guterres at the University of Nairobi.

GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) As millions of people marked World Refugee Day across the world on Friday, the head of the UN refugee agency highlighted the "humanitarian disaster" in Somalia and said he was very concerned about the rise in the number of refugees in 2007.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who was marking World Refugee Day (WRD) in Kenya, also noted that the patterns of forced displacement in the world were changing and said UNHCR and the international community would face major challenges in determining who exactly needed protection.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, said that while June 20 was designated World Refugee Day, it would go unnoticed by the majority of the world. "Even those for whom the day is for, they have no access to newspapers to read the announcements, they have no televisions to see PSAs [public service announcement] on their behalf. Many are running for their lives on this day or dying on this day," she said in a short message.

"But whether it is noticed or not, today stands as one of the most important days of the year. It is a day of respect and remembrance for the most vulnerable people in the world," she added.

With "Protection" as this year's global theme, UNHCR and its partners, including governments, donors, non-governmental organizations, Goodwill Ambassadors and refugees themselves, have been taking part in a wide range of activities, including light shows, photography exhibitions, film festivals, lectures, panel discussions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions.

© Australia for UNHCR
Sydney-siders put their hands up for refugees at the Australia for UNHCR World Refugee Day breakfast, at the Westin Hotel, Sydney. MC Broadcaster and Journalist Tracey Holmes at the podium.

There have also been quizzes, drawing and essay-writing competitions, tree planting, seminars, workshops, speeches, public awareness campaigns and poetry recitals, while UNHCR has recreated refugee camp life in around 20 cities around the world with family tents flown in courtesy of partner UPS.

The High Commissioner spent the early part of the day at a World Refugee Day gathering on the sports ground of the University of Nairobi after meeting Somali refugees in the north-east on Wednesday and internally displaced Kenyans in the Rift Valley on Thursday. Guterres, who thanked the government and people of Kenya for welcoming refugees over the years, said he was worried about the continuing rise in the number of refugees.

"This is a moment of great concern for us worldwide. The number of refugees in 2007 went up to 11.4 million and the number of people displaced within the borders of their own countries went up to 26 million. That means that after a few years of the beginning of the century when the numbers were going down ... we are now witnessing a new increase," he said.

Guterres said crises such as Somalia were among the reasons for that increase. "Somalia is for us, a situation of extraordinary concern. It is probably the most dramatic humanitarian disaster in today's world." There are an estimated 300,000 displaced people along a 30-km stretch of road between the capital Mogadishu and the town of Afgooye. There has, moreover, been a 450 percent increase in food prices since the beginning of the year and this is hitting these people hard.

Despite the massive problems in Somalia, some people were celebrating World Refugee Day in Mogadishu, which hosts refugees from Zanzibar, and elsewhere in the country. Speeches and a drama were scheduled in the capital.

The global celebrations started in the Asia-Pacific region, where Australia for UNHCR held its annual World Refugee Day Breakfast in a Sydney hotel. The event included politicians, business leaders, refugees and UNHCR supporters. In Canberra, Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans told a WRD event that the composition of Australia's offshore humanitarian programme would comprise refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for the year 2008/2009.

In Japan, the big WRD event of the day was the launch of the third Tokyo Refugee Film Festival. The Oscar-nominated documentary, "War Dance," opened the week-long event. Refugee film festivals were also due in Hong Kong, Mexico, Poland and Venezuela.

Further west, in Thailand, urban refugees from many countries gathered at the Bangkok Refugee Centre to celebrate WRD with song and dance. Sri Lankans, Lao Hmong, Cambodians, Congolese and Somalis sang and danced. The Congolese presented a skit about how marriages are arranged in Africa.

© UNHCR/F.Scicchitano
Rome's fabled Colosseum illuminated with the UNHCR logo and the message: "Protecting refugees is a duty. Being protected is a right."

In the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, home to some 1,700 mainly Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR installed a tent in front of the UN compound and handed out awareness material. In the small town of Vakhdat, UNHCR helped organize a cultural event that included national songs and dances as well as a drawing competition.

Friday is a holiday in the Muslim world and many countries and organizations in the Middle East were holding events either before or after World Refugee Day. Despite insecurity in Iraq, UNHCR helped organize community-based and grass roots activities in the north, centre and south of the country. The activities included social gatherings, folkloric dances, drawing competitions and bazaars.

Many countries in Africa were celebrating WRD, with national ceremonies and a raft of events in refugee camps. In the Burundi capital of Bujumbura, urban refugees gave food to vulnerable fellow refugees and Burundians in local hospitals.

In neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNHCR Regional Representative Eusebe Hounsokou was given the rare honour of addressing the parliament of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He discussed the role and work of UNHCR in DRC during a session on humanitarian and social affairs and stressed the need for peace and stability in the east of the country.

In eastern Tanzania, the government was scheduled to mark the day by giving naturalization certificates to 202 Somali Bantu refugees in Chogo settlement. The government has given these refugees land and welcomed them to apply for naturalization based on the historical links they have to Tanzania. Cultural and sports events were held in camps and settlements.

Meanwhile in Europe, the Swiss city of Geneva continued the annual tradition of illuminating its famous fountain, the Jet d'Eau, in United Nations blue. A UNHCR lightweight family tent was assembled on the square facing the Palais des Nations, the UN's European headquarters.

Roman landmark, the Colosseum, was also all lit up to mark WRD. In the days running up to WRD it was illuminated with the UNHCR logo and the words: "Protecting refugees is a duty. Being protected is a right." UNHCR tents were on display at the Colosseum and in central Milan's Piazza Duomo. Also in Rome, UNHCR and the Italian Coast Guard Service were due to honour ship captains and crew who rescued scores of boat people, including refugees and asylum seekers, in the Mediterranean last year.

In Spain, UNHCR highlighted the importance of education with the launch of the Spanish-language version of its interactive web-based game, "Against All Odds," at Madrid's Caixa Forum Museum. The Danish version of game was also launched at schools across the northern European country.

And in Belgium, thousands of copies of a special eight-page World Refugee Day supplement were distributed in Brussels today. Produced by UNHCR and six governmental and non-governmental partners, the publication was distributed free at railway stations and as inserts in two major daily newspapers. Some 10,000 copies were handed out at the stations in less than an hour.

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
The lightweight family tent next to Geneva's "Broken Chair" artwork symbolizing the victims of landmines, including refugees and the internally displaced.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone met First Lady Laura Bush in the White House before attending a public WRD ceremony and a film screening at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. Johnstone was set to present a Humanitarian of the Year Award to Sudan-born Chicago Bulls basketball star Luol Deng. The former refugee has in the past year become a key supporter of UNHCR's ninemillion.org campaign, which promotes education and sport for refugee children.

Meanwhile best-selling author Khaled Hosseini, a goodwill envoy to UNHCR in the US, will take part later today in a discussion on his homeland of Afghanistan with a distinguished panel of experts and opinion leaders in San Francisco.

Events are planned in cities across Canada, including a citizenship ceremony and a performance of Thai dance in Ottawa, a free concert by the African Guitar Summit in Toronto and stand-up comedy in Montreal from Boucar Diouf, who was born in Senegal but has lived in Canada since 1991.

In Mexico, the winners of the second World Refugee Day essay contest for high school students will be announced in Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle. Students taking part in the contest, co-organized by UNHCR, must write on the integration of urban refugees.

By Leo Dobbs in Geneva