As World Refugee Day gets under way, UNHCR appeals for the displaced
GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) - As millions of people around the globe were marking World Refugee Day on Sunday, UNHCR chief António Guterres called on the international community to do more for the forcibly displaced.
High Commissioner made his call during a press conference in Syria - broadcast on a live video link - where he met earlier in the day with President Bashar Assad and other top leaders. Syria hosts about 1 million mainly Iraqi refugees, according to the government.
"I appeal to the international community to do more to host refugees," Guterres said just two days after the UN refugee agency announced that 100,000 Iraqi refugees have been referred for resettlement from the Middle East to third countries since 2007, a major milestone for one of the world's largest refugee populations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, also made an appeal on behalf of refugees in a special World Refugee Day (WRD) message. "Refugees have been deprived of their homes, but they must not be deprived of their futures," he said, while calling for working with host governments to deliver services and for intensified efforts to resolve conflicts so that refugees can return home.
With "Home," 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 over the past week in awareness-raising, cultural, educational, environmental and sport activities, especially football tournaments in this year of the World Cup finals in South Africa.
Special messages from Guterres and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who met Colombian refugees in northern Ecuador last week, have been broadcast around the world. Jolie, Guterres and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part in a global live event on Friday linking four countries.
And, following with past tradition, landmarks around the world are being illuminated, including, for the first time, the graceful 79-year-old Empire State Building in New York as well as the Colosseum in Rome and the towering Jet d'Eau fountain in Geneva.
On the day itself, New Zealand was among the first to commemorate World Refugee Day with a ceremony at the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre in Auckland. Minister of Immigration Jonathan Coleman planted a kaui tree, a traditional symbol of good luck. A special booklet about New Zealand's resettlement programme was launched at the event.
The UNHCR office in Papua New Guinea held a public event and a reception in Port Moresby on Sunday evening. The highlight was a powerful drama on refugee experiences entitled, "Our Right is Our Future," but guests could also enjoy a photo exhibition, take in a dance performance by West Papuan refugees, admire drawings by refugee children and buy products made by refugees. Foreign Minister Sam Abal was the guest speaker.
Shanghai Expo 2010 has been the focus of this year's WRD activities in China. To loud applause and a blinding barrage of camera flashes, popular Chinese actress Yao Chen took to a stage at the world's fair on Sunday to tell the Chinese public how refugees living in cities can contribute to their host countries if allowed.
Showing video and photos of a recent trip to the Philippines to meet refugees from Africa and the Middle East, Yao Chen told visitors that her trip dispelled the image most people in China have that refugees only live in camps and are "people with thin faces and fearful eyes." Giuseppe de Vincentis, UNHCR's regional representative, presented Yao Chen with a plaque appointing her a UNHCR honorary patron for the next year.
UNHCR's main event in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur literally stopped traffic at KL Sentral, the largest train station in Southeast Asia. Huge crowds came to watch and take part in the activities, including a simulated refugee experience in a maze-like structure. Visitors faced the same difficult choices as refugees fleeing persecution or violence as they tried to find a way out.
The event included other reality experiences aimed at raising awareness about the life of a refugee. There was also a handicrafts bazaar and cultural performances. Local celebrities and performers lent their support to the event.
But in the Cox's Bazar area of eastern Bangladesh, WRD activities planned Sunday for thousands of refugees from Myanmar in nearby camps were postponed as a mark of respect for dozens of people killed in last week's devastating floods.
In Pakistan, UNHCR marked Sunday with an announcement that the number of Afghan refugees to repatriate voluntarily from Pakistan so far this year has just passed the 70,000 mark.
To the north, in Tajikistan, some 400 refugees and 100 guests attended an awards ceremony in the capital, Dushanbe, for the winners of an art and essay programme for Tajik and refugee children on the theme of "Home." The winners received laptops, cameras and DVD players during an event that also featured dance and singing by Afghan refugees. The popular Tajik band, "Parem," performed at the end of the ceremony.
Syria has been the focus of World Refugee Day activities in the Middle East this year, but special programmes were also organized in refugee-hosting countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
High Commissioner Guterres had a busy programme on Sunday. Aside from meeting with President Assad, he also visited a UNHCR centre in the Douma district and joined an open day organized by refugees in the ancient city's Azem Palace, an exquisite Ottoman building opened in 1750 and now housing a museum of arts and folk traditions.
The UNHCR office in Yemen, which hosts a large Somali refugee population, opened a photo exhibition at the National Museum in Sana'a on Sunday of photos taken by refugee children. The event also included a handicraft bazaar, speeches, drama performances, music and dance and a reading on the theme of "Home" by acclaimed Yemeni poetess, Ibtissam Al Mutatwakel.
Countries across Africa were marking Sunday with special WRD events, including lots of football matches as the World Cup finals in South Africa hot up. UNHCR's office in Pretoria took part in a big event on Saturday, the Better World Village Festival, to drum up support for refugees.
In Kampala, several restaurants were running special World Refugee Day menus and displaying UNHCR posters on Sunday and giving the proceeds to help the forcibly displaced. An eclectic selection of dishes were on offer at the Ugandan capital's The Lawns Restaurant, including ostrich kebab, pan-fried tilapia, lamb burger, sweet and sour pork, pepper fillet and Thai chicken curry.
There were two major World Refugee Day events on Sunday in Rwanda, The main one was in Gihembe refugee camp, but UNHCR also organized activities in Kigali for urban refugees.
In Europe, meanwhile, special umbrella parades took place on Sunday in eight major cities across Europe, ranging from London to Lyon. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of people clutching large white brollies paraded through central London to raise awareness about refugees. The white umbrellas are a symbol of shelter and safety.
UNHCR's Montenegro office, meanwhile, was welcoming the public Sunday to a public interactive display called "Labyrinth." Visitors to the exhibit, created by art students, are exposed to images showing different phases of refugee life. And in neighbouring Kosovo, the bridge across the Ibar River in the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica is being lit blue to mark the day.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States, the art deco Empire State Building is also scheduled to be lit in blue for several hours from sundown today. "I am delighted that the Empire State Building came out in support of this year's World Refugee Day. The fact that such an iconic building has agreed to turn its lighting blue on June 20 in honour of victims of violence and persecution all over the world is truly moving," said Udo Janz, director of UNHCR's New York office.
Meanwhile, some 7,500 of New York's ubiquitous yellow taxis are carrying special UNHCR messages. In Washington, DC, UNHCR is sponsoring a concert at the Kennedy Centre this evening by Colombian singer Marta Gómez.
In Canada UNHCR is organizing a day of free concerts, entertainment and a poetry contest as part of Luminato, an annual festival of arts, culture and creativity that culminates on World Refugee Day.
As the sun set in Europe, WRD activities were going on or yet to start in Mexico, Caribbean nations and across South America, though most countries have held their main events during the past week.
By Leo Dobbs in Geneva