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UNHCR urges RESPECT for refugees on 50th anniversary

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UNHCR urges RESPECT for refugees on 50th anniversary

14 December 2000

Marking its 50th anniversary, the U.N. refugee agency Thursday declared that while its longevity is nothing to celebrate, the courage and contributions of the world's millions of refugees deserve everyone's respect.

"UNHCR's 50th anniversary is, in itself, no cause for celebration," said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, whose 10-year term ends on Dec. 31. "In fact, our longevity is a reflection of the international community's failure to prevent prejudice, persecution, poverty and other causes of conflict and displacement.

"So we are marking this anniversary year by highlighting the courage and contributions of millions of refugees around the world," Mrs. Ogata told a news conference in Geneva. "Refugees come from every walk of life - teachers and truck drivers, farmers and physicists, labourers and lawyers. They deserve our respect for overcoming all odds to survive and begin their lives anew."

With a staff of more than 5,000 people in some 120 countries, UNHCR currently cares for 22.3 million refugees and displaced in some of the most difficult and dangerous places on earth. It has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts on behalf of the displaced.

To mark its 50 years of work, UNHCR supporters worldwide are holding a series of events over the next six months focused on promoting respect for refugees. Today, for example, the agency launches a global public awareness campaign featuring several former prominent refugees in print and television spots. A 60-second public service announcement for television features U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, model Alek Wek, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, writer Isabel Allende, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer and internet businessman Sieng Van Tran dancing and lip-synching to Aretha Franklin's song, "Respect."

The RESPECT campaign highlights the potential of refugees. To run parallel with the TV spot is a series of print ads, also featuring famous and lesser-known but successful refugees. The TV spot and print ads will run on a public-service basis on television stations and in magazines and newspapers around the globe.

The anniversary events will culminate in a sound and light show at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor next June 20 - designated by the U.N. General Assembly as the first World Refugee Day. The Statue of Liberty event, to be organised by French artist Gad Weil, was announced by U.S. National Park Service and UNHCR officials in Paris on Wednesday evening.

Tonight, Geneva will mark UNHCR's birthday by illuminating the giant jet d'eau fountain in U.N. blue and setting thousands of candles adrift down the River Rhone, symbolising the hopes of millions of refugees.

At Geneva's Batiment des Forces Motrices theatre, refugees themselves will perform in an evening programme titled "Refugee Voices." Performers will include UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Arja Saijonmaa; African star Youssou N'Dour; refugee musicians Geoffrey Oryema and the Burundi Drummers and Rasha and Keinaan; and a group of Vietnamese and Chinese American dancers from New York. A special band and a large chorus - both made up of refugees - will also perform.

Mrs. Ogata will award one of five Nansen medals - UNHCR's annual award for contributions to the refugee cause - being given this year. Four others are being awarded in separate ceremonies in Addis Ababa, Phnom Penh, Buenos Aires and Prague.

Consonant with the overall theme of RESPECT for refugees, a "Gallery of Prominent Refugees" has been compiled in the UNHCR-50 Foundation website ( It showcases over 100 refugees or former refugees who have achieved special status within a community.

One of the central themes linking all the refugees in the Gallery is the pivotal role education played their lives. In recognition of the importance of education to refugees, the High Commissioner used the 50th anniversary to launch the Refugee Education Trust (RET), an independent fund created to provide post-primary education to young refugees in developing countries. Although they may lose everything when forced from their homelands, education is one resource that refugees can carry with them wherever they go. The RET will be the lasting legacy of the 50th anniversary year.

Contributions to the RET can be made through Lombard Odier & Cie. bank in Geneva. The account number is 36690-00 and it is in the name of UNHCR-50 Foundation.