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World Refugee Day: UNHCR brings the Darfur experience to London's Trafalgar Square


World Refugee Day: UNHCR brings the Darfur experience to London's Trafalgar Square

The UNHCR chief and thousands of visitors take part in "Experience Darfur" as World Refugee Day celebrations kick off early in Trafalgar Square.
17 June 2008
The UNHCR tents and other "Experience Darfur" exhibits in London's Trafalgar Square.

LONDON, United Kingdom, June 17 (UNHCR) - Thousands of Londoners, schoolchildren and foreign tourists got a taste of life in Sudan's troubled Darfur region on Tuesday after UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres kicked off World Refugee Day celebrations early with a visit to Trafalgar Square.

After touring a mock refugee camp, Guterres announced the results of the annual Global Trends report, which showed that the number of refugees under UNHCR's responsibility had risen in 2007 for the second year in a row to 11.4 million, while the overall number of people of concern to the agency stood at 31.7 million. He said the rise in refugee numbers was a concern.

The UN refugee agency had turned Trafalgar Square into a mock refugee camp for a day, setting up four lightweight family tents, interactive games, a torched village hut and exhibits of relief items, including blankets, kitchen sets, plastic sheeting, soap, buckets and clean, safe and environmentally friendly stoves as well as UNHCR vehicles with the agency's distinctive logo.

The exhibit, dubbed "Experience Darfur," opened early morning and soon attracted big crowds. Some 800 people signed up in the morning to receive more information about the hundreds of thousands of uprooted Sudanese people in Darfur and in camps run by the UN refugee agency in neighbouring Chad.

"The Trafalgar Square experience and exhibition has attracted a lot of attention and many people have been very positive about learning more about Darfur and the work of UNHCR," said Claudia Gisiger-Gonzalez, who is in charge of special events for the agency.

The exhibition illustrates some of the protection challenges UNHCR faces on a daily basis in delivering aid to some of the world's most vulnerable people. Each of the four tents focuses on a particular aspect of UNHCR's work - shelter; food; education; and rebuilding. Volunteers and UNHCR interns handed out literature and answered questions about humanitarian relief work and Darfur.

A group of 20 female Sudanese refugees sang and danced, while many people imitated the protecting hands of UNHCR's logo, which has become a potent symbol. The exhibit also featured 4x4 vehicles with screens showing videos of UNHCR operations. The event is being held to mark World Refugee Day, which actually falls on Friday.

"I took the day off to be here," said Mariann Wenckheim, an Austrian designer who lives in London. Another visitor, IT consultant Arthur Ochoa, said that he sometimes thought people in the industrialized world were becoming immune to the tragedies and disasters affecting millions, including refugees.

"We forget and take for granted the work of organizations, like UNHCR, bringing relief to the most affected regions of the world," he said, adding: "Keep up the good work."

Other visitors included British celebrities such as actress Sophie Okonedo, who won an Oscar nomination in 2005 for her role in "Hotel Rwanda," which depicts the genocide of the 1990s in that small landlocked African country which led to hundreds of thousands people fleeing their homes and creating a refugee problem in the Great Lakes region that endures to this day.

The conflict in Darfur is another pressing humanitarian crisis. Since the outbreak of violence in 2003, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2.5 million have been left internally displaced, while some 250,000 refugees from Darfur live in 12 UNHCR-run camps in eastern Chad.

The UN refugee agency has had a presence in Darfur since 2004, coordinating the humanitarian protection effort in West Darfur and maintaining a regular presence in the many camps and settlements of internally displaced Darfurians.

Meanwhile, High Commissioner Guterres said the number of refugees under UNHCR's care had risen from 9.9 to 11.4 million by the end of last year, while the number of people left internally displaced by conflict increased from 24.4 million to 26 million. UNHCR currently provides protection or assistance directly or indirectly to 13.7 million of them - up from 12.8 million in 2006.

Actress Sophie Okonedo visits one of the UNHCR refugee tents set up on London's Trafalgar Square.

The total number of people under UNHCR's care in 2007, including refugees, internally displaced people, stateless people and others, stood at 31.7 million people at the end of 2007. This excluded 4.6 million Palestinian refugees helped by another UN agency.

Guterres, who spoke about migration and the challenges presented by war, persecution and climate change during an address on Monday night at the Royal Geographical Society in London, will spend World Refugee Day itself in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The Trafalgar Square event was supported by the UK government's Department for International Development, Toyota Gibraltar Stockholding Ltd., and the European Commissioner Representation to the UK. The tents were flown to London for free by UPS.