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UNHCR Head of Office delivers speech to mark launch of UNHCR photo exhibition and World Refugee Day

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UNHCR Head of Office delivers speech to mark launch of UNHCR photo exhibition and World Refugee Day

20 June 2011
UNHCR Head of Office, Sophie Magennis, gives a speech on World Refugee Day


The following speech was delivered by Ms. Sophie Magennis, Head of Office, UNHCR Ireland, on 20 June 2011. She was speaking at the launch of the UNHCR Ireland photo exhibition, 60 Years - Stories of Survival and Safe Haven, in The chq Building, IFSC, on the occasion of World Refugee Day and the 60th Anniversary of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.


"Good morning everyone. My name is Sophie Magennis and on behalf of all of the staff at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office in Ireland, I welcome you to the launch of our Photo Exhibition.

Today is World Refugee Day and we are delighted to launch this exhibition to mark this occasion which this year falls during the 60th Anniversary of the UN Convention under which we operate.

May I extend an extra special welcome to everyone featured in the portraits who travelled from around the country to be with us here today. Your stories are inspirational and we thank you for placing your trust in us and taking part in this exhibition.

The exhibition is part of a global photographic project UNHCR is undertaking to raise awareness about the individuals who have received protection under the UN Convention since its adoption 60 years ago. Magnum, the leading photographic agency has compiled a collection of photographs sourced by UNHCR Offices throughout Europe and these images will be displayed on key landmark buildings in Europe in the coming months.

In Ireland, the UNHCR photographic project has been coordinated and curated by Yolanda Kennedy, External Relations Officer at UNHCR Ireland, ably supported by Paul Sheehan of the Office’s external relations team. The photographs were shot by members of the Irish Lightstalkers collective of photographers and we are delighted that so many of the photographers could join us here today. Our special thanks also to Phil Behan of the Irish Lightstalkers for assisting in bringing this project together and for his ongoing support of the work of UNHCR.

I hope many of you had a chance to view the exhibition already this morning and, if not, that you will be able to take some time at the close of the speeches to wander among these great photographs.

This morning, I am going to say a few words about the occasion we are marking today. Following that, the journalist Mark Little, formerly of RTE and now with Storyful, the innovative digital media company will speak about the power of individual stories and finally, Alvaro Aravena who participated in this photo project and shared his story with us will say a few words.

This World Refugee Day, we recall that some sixty years ago, Europe’s most destructive war left millions of traumatized people homeless and displaced. Realizing these vulnerable people needed special protection world leaders took action. Thousands were resettled to new countries - and the 1951 Refugee Convention was created. Today this convention is still protecting millions of people forced to flee war or persecution.

Currently more than 43 million people are displaced by violence around the world. Europe is no longer home to most of them. Despite what some populist politicians would have us believe, the vast majority - about 80 percent - are hosted and cared for in developing countries, not industrialized ones.

We have seen this generosity recently in the response of Tunisians and Egyptians to people escaping the violence in Libya. These two countries have received the majority of the almost 1 million people who have fled the violence- offering safety before they could be evacuated home or refuge if returning home was not possible. It’s estimated that less than 2 percent of those leaving Libya are actually coming to Europe.

Here in Ireland, there is a long history of solidarity with refugees and the archive trawl we undertook through back issues of the Irish Times records this spirit. I would encourage everyone to have a read of these articles which have been mounted on boards displayed in the exhibition here today. You will see the editorial from 1974 entitled “Let them in” which called on the Government of the day to admit a greater number of Chillean refugees than originally planned. The editor wrote, and I quote, “If individuals were to guarantee homes and, where possible, jobs to those who need urgently them, the Government’s problems would diminish”.

Another article from 1956 carries a photograph of Dublin Dockers marching through the streets of Dublin to protest at the treatment of Hungarians who had refused to unload Russian timber at Dublin port.

This spirit of hospitality and understanding was expressed in tougher financial times than Ireland is experiencing at present. Ireland in the 1950’s and 1970’s was far less well equipped to meet the needs of people arriving from places of conflict.

There were however, then as now, cautionary voices in relation to the welcome that should be extended to those in need of international protection. A few years ago, Government papers released under the 30 year rule indicated that the Justice Ministry had concerns about the potential future Marxist activities of Chilean refugees who might be admitted to Ireland. The concerns were addressed successfully by the late Garrett Fitzgerald, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the refugees were admitted.

It important for all us who want to support the protection of refugees to address the concerns that some may have about what protection may entail. Today’s exhibition and the booklet which accompanies it is a contribution to that task.

The exhibition documents the enormous contributions those offered protection here have made to Irish life. Of course, there have been challenges along the way and pursuing integration in the Ireland of the 1950’s or 1970’s was surely no mean feat, but the stories documented in the booklet are nothing short of inspirational. The stories tell us a lot about the strength, determination and spirit of those whose portraits hang in this room. They also tell us a lot about the capacity of Irish society to nurture and benefit from the contributions of refugees determined to build a better future for themselves and their children.

Even in the context of the current financial crisis, given this rich history of providing protection since the 1950’s and before, the Irish authorities and society can be confident about their capacity to continue to provide this protection into the future.

In recent weeks, UNHCR has warmly welcomed the decision of the Irish Government to admit 34 people from North Africa and Malta who have fled the crisis in the region.

The generosity documented in this exhibition is rooted in a shared humanity - and a shared belief that there are no tolerable levels of suffering. It’s a recognition that even one person forced to flee war or persecution, is one too many.

Today’s chronic conflicts are a cause for special concern: What we see is that as new conflicts flare old ones are left unresolved. This leads to new displacement on the one hand and millions of people being prevented from returning home on the other. Fewer than 200,000 refugees went home in 2010, the lowest number in 20 years. With few options these uprooted people will languish in camps or in urban shantytowns. Today more than seven million refugees live in so-called protracted situations – living their lives in a virtual limbo. It’s a situation that can lead to desperation and a search for an escape, even if it means risking their lives.

It is necessary for the international community to step forward and act. Whether it be to keep borders open to those seeking safety from violence or persecution, or to provide solutions to long-term refugees. We need to invest in peace: people need to be helped to go home, or to be given a chance to start new lives.

The recent tragedies involving refugees fleeing Libya and the longer standing ones such as the mistreatment and drowning of Somali refugees across the Gulf of Aden also argue powerfully for more resettlement places in the developed world.

Through resettlement, the most vulnerable refugees are able to start new lives in new countries. It allows people in need of protection to move in an orderly and predictable way, removing the temptation to life-imperiling means and routes. At the same time, it is palpable proof to those countries which host large numbers of refugees that other nations and peoples are willing to share the responsibility to protect.

Accordingly, on this World Refugee Day, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is asking States everywhere to reflect on the solidarity expressed 60 years ago - to help the most vulnerable - and to do one thing: - to ensure that those fleeing danger - no matter what part of the world they are in - can still find refuge under the 1951 Convention. Because even one refugee without hope, is one too many."