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"There has never been a greater need to imagine and act for a world where no one is forced to flee their home"

UNHCR India CoM, Ms. Areti Sianni, at Human Rights Day event
Speeches and statements

"There has never been a greater need to imagine and act for a world where no one is forced to flee their home"

10 December 2023

Keynote address by Ms. Areti Sianni, Chief of Mission, UNHCR India

Symposium on “Freedom, Equality and Justice for All” in commemoration of Human Rights Day and the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Ladies and gentlemen, Distinguished guests,

Good morning,

It is an honour to be joining you today to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, the Declaration has been described as the "common language of humanity" and the "conscience of the world”.[1]

It is also a privilege to be celebrating this anniversary in India, a country that played an important role in the UDHR’s drafting process and, through figures like Hansa Mehta and Lakshmi Menon, powerfully advocated for the inclusion of gender-sensitive language and a focus on “the rights of all human beings” irrespective of race, religion, colour, sex, social status, or language.  Their efforts led to the adoption of more inclusive language in the Declaration as illustrated in the Preamble’s reference to the “equal rights of men and women” as well as in Article 1 proclaiming that “all human beings” - rather than just men – “are born free and equal".

The Universal Declaration for Human Rights holds a special importance for the protection of refugees and the work of UNHCR. The institution of asylum and the concomitant duty to protect refugees derive directly from the right to seek and enjoy asylum set out in Article 14 (1) of the Declaration.[2] Many universally recognized human rights are also directly applicable and central to the protection of displaced persons such as refugees. These include the rights to life and to protection from torture and ill-treatment, the rights to a nationality and freedom of movement, the right to leave any country, including one's own as well as to return to one's country, and the most fundamental right of all  for refugees, the right to be protected from refoulement which is the right not to be forcibly return to a country where one’s life or safety would be at risk.[3] Further, discrimination is forbidden by the UDHR on several grounds, including social origin, religion, and race. This is most important nowadays for refugees since they frequently encounter prejudice and discrimination. 

Over the years, the vision, and principles of UDHR have guided the work of the international community in ensuring the protection of refugees. In 1950, two years after the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and shortly after adopted the 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees. At the time, UNHCR was tasked with providing international protection and seeking permanent solutions to refugees under our mandate for an initial period of three years with the expectation that we will be disbanded afterwards. Seventy-three years later, we are still around while the number of displaced people in the world is now over 114 million people. Of that total, over 36 million are refugees – people fleeing conflict or persecution – who have crossed an international border, while over 62 million are displaced within their own country. There are also around 6.1 million asylum-seekers – people who may, or may not, ultimately be determined to be refugees.

Closer to home, here in India, since independence, many refugees have sought asylum. They have included people from India’s neighbourhood, Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Myanmar as well as small numbers of individuals from Africa and the Middle East. At present, there are around 260,000 refugees in India including 47,000 individuals registered with UNHCR, 91,000 refugees from Sri Lanka, 74,000 refugees from Tibet and around 56,000 people in a refugee like situation in the NE.

Across the world, UNHCR works in partnership with States and other stakeholders including faith organizations and the broader civil society to protect and assist displaced individuals including at times of   emergencies - Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo being some of the emergencies that we are presently engaged, although in Gaza, which is a situation that is most present in our minds, there is another UN agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency, that has a specific mandate for Palestinian refugees .

In 137 countries including India, UNHCR works to support the development of asylum systems and prevent refoulement - the forcible return of people to places where their lives or safety would be at risk. We also work to promote the rights of refugees, the right to liberty and protection from arbitrary detention, the rights to equality before the law and to non-discrimination. We further aim at combating gender-based and other forms of violence and ensuring that refugees live lives of dignity in safety and have benefit from lasting solutions to displacement. In addition to our core mandate to protect refugees, UNHCR also works to uphold the human rights of other people for whom the General Assembly has entrusted us with legal responsibility including stateless persons - people who are not considered as nationals by any state - as well as internally displaced persons who have been forced to flee their homes but remain within their countries of origin.

I would not be exaggerating when stating that forced displacement has become the defining feature of modernity. It is the consequence of failure to uphold peace and security as well as the human rights of all human beings. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this 10th of December, we are reminded of urgency to continue working towards upholding the rights of all human beings. We are also reminded of our common responsibility to ensure that refugees are treated with humanity, that their rights are respected and protected, and that they are provided with adequate assistance and solutions.

What does such responsibility towards refugees mean in practice for local communities of faith, faith-based organizations, and faith leaders?

All the world's religions have in common the understanding that how we treat our neighbours - especially those fleeing from persecution, conflict, and war - is an expression of the strength of a religious faith. Many of the world’s religious scriptures feature stories, parables and even commandments on what could be called “sacred hospitality,” and the golden rule, shared by many religious and philosophical traditions- to do unto others as you would have them do unto you- This is inscribed in the famous Norman Rockwell mosaic at the United Nations headquarters in New York and it contains the idea that we are all connected—by our shared common humanity.

India has an honourable humanitarian reputation and a tradition of welcoming refugees underpinned by the philosophy of Vasudeiva Kutumbakam - that the world is one family - but also principles of hospitality that are at the core of many religious faiths, such as the Bahai faith, of this wonderfully diverse country. In today’s turbulent times, these principles could never be more relevant.

Firstly, faith communities and leaders can and often play a crucial role in demonstrating compassion and caring for refugees. We at UNHCR have come to depend on it across many crises. Faith actors are often first on the scene in rendering assistance during humanitarian crises and remain when international funding is no longer available. The broader work of faith actors’ humanitarian action in support of sustainable development, peacebuilding, and environmental advocacy, among other examples, does not only impact upon the situation and well-being of refugees in various contexts but can support the pursuit of solutions. Through their work, faith actors bring religious teachings to day-to-day life, whether through welcoming families who have escaped war in their midst, or by become involved in other ways in the lives of refugees on the basis of faith-based teachings of universal love, compassion, and the humanitarian principle of helping anyone regardless of faith, gender, ethnicity, or legal status.

Secondly, through the exercise of moral authority with local communities, faith leaders and organizations can and often do play an essential role in influencing global, regional, and national policies towards refugees. They call on governments to do more, to keep borders open, to provide asylum, to ensure the provision of humane shelter and adequate food, to support with access to education and to work and remind us to be compassionate.

Finally, faith leaders and faith organizations can and do have also a considerable influence in shaping popular opinion around refugees and transforming social behaviours towards one another in favour of inclusion and acceptance. They can promote solidarity by reminding us that we are all part of the same human family. They can also influence attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours through their work, promoting the welcome of refugees and encouraging values of friendship, reconciliation, and peaceful co-existence with each other. The exercise of moral authority in this area is now needed more than ever to help counter the impact of xenophobia, malicious or false narratives that we are seeing spreading through social media often causing real-world harm.

Ladies and gentlemen

On this Human Rights Day, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, allow me to conclude by recalling the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "You must be the change you want to see in the world.". The power of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the power of ideas to change the world as stated by Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. During the turbulent times that we live in, there has never been a greater need to imagine and act for a world where no one is forced to flee their home, where refugees have the chance to go back home and while they live in our midst, they are offered a helping hand and a welcome; a world where the values of compassion and justice prevail.

I thank the organizers for this wonderful opportunity to engage with this community on this special occasion.



[3] Ibid.