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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day, 20 June 1999

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day, 20 June 1999

20 June 1999

Each of the past 25 years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Organization of African Unity and nations across the continent have celebrated June 20th as Africa Refugee Day. But the significance of this day goes back five years beyond that. In 1969, representatives of 34 members of the OAU gathered in Addis Ababa to sign the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugees in Africa.

Very quickly the document with this rather long title became known simply as the "OAU Refugee Convention." It was an important document for the new and emerging African nations, and it demonstrated unparalleled generosity towards refugees.

The Convention took the accepted definition of a refugee and expanded it. The drafters worked on such new principles as refugee status for entire groups of people at a time, rather than just individuals, and the very first provisions for voluntary repatriation. They also imagined that people might flee a country for reasons other than those laid out in the landmark 1951 Geneva Convention, and they included these, too.

For 30 years, the OAU Refugee Convention has served as a model of international refugee law. It has been a cornerstone of UNHCR's efforts in Africa since it came into effect on this date in 1974.

During these three decades, the generous spirit of the Convention has been put to the test. Through war and natural disasters, African nations have struggled to welcome and help huge numbers of refugees. Along with the many examples of African hospitality and doors opened to those in flight, we have seen the enormous burden on countries which border long-running conflicts, and the strain caused by waves of destitute people.

My Office has expanded its presence in Africa from a single bureau in Cairo to 110 offices in 42 countries throughout the continent. Over 2,000 UNHCR staff now work in Africa. This allows us to reach many more people in need.

Despite the dramatic increase, since 1969, in the number of refugees in Africa, and the complex challenges facing countries and aid workers alike, the OAU Refugee Convention is as relevant now as it was 30 years ago.

My recent trip to West Africa allowed me to see the principles of the Convention at work. In response to the chaos in Sierra Leone, Guinea continues to offer refuge to thousands of new arrivals; entire groups of people from a neighbouring nation are received like brothers; and Liberian refugees, exiled for as long as seven years, are able today to decide freely when to return home.

This year especially, while much of the world's attention is focused on the refugee crisis in Kosovo, let us not forget this important African anniversary and its enduring meaning for refugees all over the globe.

We have an outstanding model for helping refugees in Africa. UNHCR, the OAU and nations on the continent will continue to rely on the wisdom of this 30-year-old document to meet the challenge of assisting future refugees. On this anniversary we should renew our pledges to its spirit of generosity.