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"A Place to Call Home" - Message of Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on World Refugee Day, 20 June 2004

Speeches and statements

"A Place to Call Home" - Message of Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on World Refugee Day, 20 June 2004

20 June 2004

All of us need a place to call home - a place where we "belong." But for millions of refugees and displaced people around the world today, home is little more than a distant dream.

Fleeing persecution and conflict, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, refugees are separated from all that is familiar - from family, friends, work, community and culture. Faced with an uncertain future in a strange land, the sense of loss and alienation can be overwhelming. To lose one's home can be to lose one's very identity.

Yet, despite the enormity of their suffering, refugees never give up their dream of "home" and all that it entails - family, acceptance, security, a sense of belonging and self-worth. The fact that refugees maintain that hope, sometimes against all odds, should be an inspiration to all of us.

That is why we at the U.N. refugee agency have chosen the very fitting theme of "A Place to Call Home" to mark this year's World Refugee Day on June 20.

As U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, I believe there is no more important work than supporting refugees and displaced people around the world in their courageous struggle to rebuild their lives in a place they can call home. And I am proud that we have been doing just that for over five decades, helping to find solutions that have enabled more than 50 million refugees to pick up the pieces of their lives and start anew.

Despite the perception in some, mainly industrialised, nations that they are being overwhelmed by refugees, the vast majority of those 50 million people returned to their own, often devastated, homelands. Refugees desperately want to go back home - a sentiment we have seen dramatically played out time and again in places as diverse as Kosovo and Cambodia, Mozambique and Timor-Leste. At the beginning of the millennium, UNHCR was helping some 1.1 million to re-start their lives after returning to their homelands. Today, we are helping more than 3.5 million who have gone home the past few years.

That's why UNHCR considers voluntary repatriation - going back to one's original homeland once all the right conditions are in place - the best solution for refugees. A total of 1.1 million refugees went home last year alone. The biggest single group - some 646,000 people - returned to Afghanistan, bringing to more than 3 million the number of Afghan refugees and displaced who have gone home since 2002. We also see large numbers of refugees returning home to Angola, Burundi, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Côte d'Ivoire, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Eritrea, Croatia and Somalia, even though conditions in several of these countries are far from ideal.

And more return possibilities are on the horizon. UNHCR has identified nine African nations where repatriation is already under way, about to start, or where there are good prospects for return in the near future. Between them, these nine countries account for at least 2 million refugees and millions more internally displaced. Recently, UNHCR brought together representatives of African nations, donor states, UN agencies and NGOs in Geneva to map out plans for a sustained effort to ensure that these nine African countries get the help they need to enable their citizens to go home and - just as importantly - stay home. Sustained international support throughout the entire process of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction is crucial if they are to succeed.

But what about those refugees who can never go home? For them, UNHCR and its partners seek one of two solutions: integration in countries of first asylum or, if that is not possible, resettlement to a "third" country.

In both situations, the ultimate aim is to enable refugees to resume their lives, albeit in a new country. This requires real generosity and burden-sharing by asylum countries - often poor themselves - and by the relatively small number of predominantly developed nations that accept the bulk of resettled refugees. In 2003, some 56,000 refugees were resettled in 10 main resettlement destinations. Tens of thousands more were integrated in first asylum states.

In addition to international support, including targeted development assistance to asylum countries, these solutions also require continuing courage and perseverance on the part of the refugees themselves as they adapt to their new homes. We can all assist in that process by extending a welcoming hand and by recognising that refugees are true survivors who can make valuable contributions to our communities. They, too, deserve a place to call home.