World Refugee Day: A time to rally round family and friends
GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) - As forced displacement reaches dramatic proportions globally, the UN refugee agency is encouraging and inviting family and friends around the world today to mark a somber World Refugee Day (WRD).
"There are now more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people - the highest level in nearly 20 years," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a special message for the day. "Figures give only a glimpse of this enormous human tragedy. Every day, conflict tears apart the lives of thousands of families. They may be forced to leave loved ones behind or become separated in the chaos of war."
Family is the theme of the day this year and this has been very much in the minds of UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, who are both in Jordan to draw attention to the suffering of more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees.
Guterres expressed his fears about the situation in a special message. "In all the years I have worked on behalf of refugees, this is the most worrying I have ever witnessed. The needs of these people are overwhelming; their anguish is unbearable," he said. The High Commissioner said he feared "that an entire nation is being left to self-destruct as it empties itself of its people," and he was worried that "with no clear political resolution in sight, this civil war is in real danger of sliding into a regional conflict." He called on those with political responsibilities to come together to do all in their power to stop this war.
World Refugee Day was established by the UN General Assembly in late 2000 and is marked each year on June 20, with the aim of bringing attention to the plight of the world's forcibly displaced.
UNHCR staff have been planning for months for WRD and have prepared a wide range of activities, including light shows, film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, food bazaars, fashion shows, cultural performances, concerts and sports contests. There will also be competitions, tree planting, speeches, panel discussions, poetry recitals and photography exhibitions. UNHCR has its most ambitious social media campaign to date to promote the day and spread awareness.
One particularly interesting global campaign, is UNHCR's "The Most Important Thing," which was inspired by photographs taken by American Brian Sokol on assignment for UNHCR. It takes the form of a call to action to people around the world to try to imagine the heart-rending decisions that people fleeing their homes must make. Specifically, what would you take? People are encouraged to take a photo of themselves with the item and write a message, then send it to be posted on a dedicated UNHCR Pinterest page. The results are interesting.
The agency's partners, including governments, donors and non-governmental organizations, will also be doing their part to help, and refugees around the world will participate while enjoying much needed recognition. And an unprecedented number of celebrity supporters were also pitching in this year with special messages.
The day started in Australia, where UNHCR's Regional Office in Canberra announced the 12 winners of its World Refugee Day Art Contest, which were judged the most outstanding of the more than 300 wonderful entries received from around Australia and New Zealand. All of the entries examined the theme "1 Family torn apart by war is too many" in a thought-provoking and compassionate way.
Major public institutions in Canberra, including the Old Parliament House, the National Library and the National Archive of Australia were lit up in UN blue in the spirit of World Refugee Day celebrations.
UN blue also inspired student designers in Japan to hold a fashion show of blue-themed costumes from 20 refugee-producing and hosting countries. In South Korea, a "Friends of UNHCR" initiative kicked off with about 20 parliamentarians committed to working together for refugee protection.
Across the South China Sea in the Philippines, the streets of Mindanao were awash with World Refugee Day T-shirts worn by 1,500 pedicab drivers, many of them internally displaced people (IDP). Some 350 mini cabs also displayed World Refugee Day banners to raise awareness of displacement issues in this area hosting nearly 2.5 million IDPs.
Refugee film festivals opened in Hong Kong and Thailand to give the public a glimpse into the lives and experiences of refugees. In Hong Kong, actor/presenter Tong Hung used the day as an occasion to announce that he had become a UNHCR volunteer.
In Pakistan, UNHCR and the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions marked World Refugee Day with a series of events across the country, while the government promised to continue to offer protection to those forced to flee their country unwillingly. Pakistan hosts 1.6 million refugees, more than other country.
Further west, in troubled Syria, UNHCR and its partners organized arts, sports and social activities today for refugees and host communities in areas like Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
In neighbouring Iraq, Syrian refugees in and around the northern city of Erbil were set to perform traditional Kurdish songs for an audience at the famous Citadel while refugees in the southern city of Basra will be treated to mobile theatre. Prizes go to the most innovative entrepreneur participating in UNHCR's Business Enterprises Establishment project and to the journalist for the best article on Syrian refugees.
In Kenya, UNHCR hosted the African premiere of "A Hijacking", a film about piracy off the coast of Somalia that reflects how a lack of alternatives can drive displaced youth to take drastic measures. Also screened at the event was "Refugee Run," a video that captures the real-life experiences of four well-known local personalities who were put through simulations resembling refugee scenarios.
Taking the idea more literally, United States-based refugee marathon runner Guor Marial is leading a five-kilometre run in his native South Sudan, where he recently returned with UNHCR help after 20 years away. In Tanzania, a photo exhibition showcases the works of Congolese refugees and local children under UNHCR's "Bridging the Lines" initiative to bring the refugee and host communities together.
In Pretoria, South Africa, more than 600 people listened to the Grammy award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir perform in celebration of World Refugee Day at an event in City Hall aimed at promoting social cohesion and building tolerance for refugees. They were joined on stage by refugee performers and sang together the well-known traditional South African song "Shosholoza." Cultural events and photo exhibits were also organized in Durban and Cape Town.
Meanwhile, some 300 former Sierra Leonean refugees were granted Liberian citizenship at a ceremony today in a Monrovia court. The new citizens had been living in Liberia for some two decades after fleeing their country, which is once again at peace. More are expected in the future.
In Geneva, location of UNHCR's global headquarters, buses and boats were flying pennants with the refugee agency's distinctive sheltering hands logo on Thursday and the iconic Jet d'Éau was due to be bathed in blue this evening. Meanwhile, the atrium of the UNHCR building was filled by mesmerizing voices and sounds of the Middle East and Africa, as Syrian Kurd musician Mico Kendes and Swiss musician Christophe Erard performed a concert using instruments such as the buzuki, cora and mey.
The United Kingdom has been celebrating World Refugee Day all week, with hundreds of events across the country. Events today include the launch of the Refugee Timeline - an online "living archive" of refugee movements to the UK since Roman times. http://www.refugeeweektimeline.org.uk/
In London, the landmark Tate Modern building is running film screenings of "There is no place like Home" and discussions about refugee issues while the Victoria and Albert Museum is running refugee tours of its historic art and fashion collection. In North Wales, people and wool pieces in all shapes, sizes and colours are taking part in "UKnitty"- coming together to make something of beauty and interest to raise awareness about refugees.
Miniature refugee heroes have been appearing on the streets of London, including Freddie Mercury, Lucian Freud, Lord Richard Rogers and the first governor of the Bank of England - to celebrate the contributions that refugees have made to the UK.
The French newspaper Le Monde ran the winning article submitted to its annual UNHCR-sponsored writing competition for students of journalism. The article, written by Sophia Marchesin, tells the story of a Syrian refugee family in France. The competition aims to promote knowledge and understanding of refugees among new journalists. Winners get the unique opportunity to travel and see first-hand a UNHCR field operation.
In the city of Lyon, hundreds of people marched through the streets carrying white umbrellas to symbolize the need to offer protection to refugees. The annual World Refugee Day umbrella parade is organized by a local NGO and has become a regular fixture.
UNHCR offices in Central Europe have been kept busy with a colourful project called "Sanctuary and Sustenance," which projects artwork onto the facades of churches, universities, town halls and other key buildings in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Ljubljana, Sofia and Bucharest. The project, which combines art with music, photography and words, is the work of Chicago-based Art Works Projects for Human Rights and traces refugee journeys.
In Washington, DC, United States Secretary of State John Kerry took part in a special ceremony at the US Department of State. The event included a live link with High Commissioner Guterres in Jordan and a performance by rising star Diamond White, the X Factor fan-favourite, of a song called "Peace." The song was released today in support of UNHCR's "1 family" campaign. It is dedicated to the more than 40 million people around the world who have been forced to flee war or persecution.
Kerry told assembled guests that offering a home to refugees was part of his country's DNA. "The eyes of some 46 million displaced people around the world are upon us," said Kerry, before revealing that the US government was doubling its annual contribution to UNHCR to more than US$800 million to help the agency cope with Syria and other crises.
A rich variety of events was also scheduled for Canada and countries across Central America and South America.
By Vivian Tan in Bangkok, Thailand and Leo Dobbs in Geneva