UNHCR awarded Italy's Terre e Pace peace prize

UNHCR has been awarded Italy's Terre e Pace peace prize in recognition of the agency's work to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers.

The ceremony awarding Italy's Terre e Pace peace prize to UNHCR took place in central Rome and was attended by politicians and international representatives.   © F3 Press/G.Gabrielli

ROME, August 6 (UNHCR) - UNHCR's work in Italy to protect the rights of asylum seekers was honoured Thursday when the agency was awarded the Terre e Pace peace prize.

The award, which is given to organizations and individuals deemed to have contributed to world peace, was accepted on behalf of the UN refugee agency by Regional Representative Laurens Jolles during a ceremony held in the shadow of Rome's famous Pantheon. Thursday's event was timed to mark the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and was attended by national and local politicians, representatives from the Japanese embassy as well as staff of organizations that have received the peace prize in the past.

The prize's organizing committee said it chose UNHCR as this year's recipient because of its work to protect the rights of asylum seekers in Italy, many of who arrive in overcrowded boats from Libya. Accepting the award, Jolles said 2009 had been a difficult year for UNHCR in Italy as it sought ensure individuals' rights to international protection were upheld in the face of restrictive government policies which, in some instances, has included returning boats to Libya.

"This award is evidence that UNHCR is not alone in its conviction that safeguards for asylum seekers must be maintained, even on the high seas," said Jolles. "It is essential that those who seek refuge from persecution are able to access international protection and that borders are not closed to them."

Italy has rescued thousands of people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea, providing assistance and protection to those in need. In May, a new push-back policy was introduced and at least 900 people trying to reach Italy by sea have now been sent to other countries, mainly to Libya. UNHCR has expressed serious concerns about the impact of this new policy which, in the absence of adequate safeguards, can prevent access to asylum and undermines the international principle of non-refoulement.

Previous recipients of the Terre e Pace prize have included UNICEF, Doctors without Borders and the Italian Red Cross.