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UNHCR hails high-tech partnership to aid refugees

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UNHCR hails high-tech partnership to aid refugees

4 July 2000

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on Tuesday urged the information technology (IT) industry to put its talents and tools to work for the betterment of the world's refugees.

Delivering the keynote address to open the "Microsoft Tech-Ed 2000 Europe" conference in Amsterdam, Mrs. Ogata noted that most refugees are "born on the wrong side" of a "yawning digital divide."

"My aim today is to give you a sense of the linkages between UNHCR's humanitarian work and your high-tech world," she told delegates to the conference of IT developers and professionals. "My hope is that you will be inspired to join us in a partnership to help empower some of the world's most disadvantaged and vulnerable people."

UNHCR, which this year marks its 50th anniversary, cares for 22.3 million refugees and displaced people in some 120 countries, often in isolated, dangerous and difficult conditions. Mrs. Ogata said UNHCR can use all the help it can get in providing assistance and protection to refugees, particularly in emergency situations.

In last year's Kosovo crisis, UNHCR teamed up with Microsoft, the William H. Gates Foundation and six other companies (Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Kingston Technology, Securit World Ltd. and ScreenCheck B.V.) to develop a portable system for registering some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the borders of Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The "Refugee Registration Kit" is composed of a laptop computer, digital camera, identification card printer and other accessories.

Mrs. Ogata said the issuance of photo identity cards to refugees - many of whom have lost all documentation - can represent "the first important step toward restoring an individual's sense of self." The computerized registration database also speeds the reunification of families and makes the management of UNHCR's activities more efficient. Microsoft and UNHCR are working together to refine and field-test the kit in other refugee situations.

The High Commissioner hailed the registration project as a model for UNHCR's partnerships with the corporate world. "You may see this as a simple and logical combination of existing technologies," she said. "But you must understand that the basic UNHCR refugee registration kit still in use around the world ... consists of pencils and paper."

The partnership of humanitarianism and high technology is also good for private business and its employees, she noted, allowing them to link their professional lives and their social concerns.

Other possible areas of cooperation could include a volunteer "international technology corps" to provide IT support in refugee emergencies; the provision of advanced IT equipment for UNHCR field operations; IT education, skills training and jobs programmes for refugees; and collaboration on raising public awareness and support for refugees and UNHCR through the Internet.