UNHCR chief travels with returnees as millions mark World Refugee Day

News Stories, 20 June 2006

© UNHCR/A.Rehrl
On World Refugee Day High Commissioner António Guterres takes returning Liberian refugee children by the hand and leads them over the Mano River border bridge between Sierra Leone and their Liberian homeland. The children were some of 125 refugees returning home in a convoy from years in exile.

GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled in a convoy with a group of returning refugees and reiterated his call for the international community to do more to help countries emerging from conflict as he marked World Refugee Day in Liberia.

"Our experience has shown that half of the countries that solve their conflicts, return to conflict within five years. That is why Liberia needs attention now, not in two or three years," said Guterres, who also joined Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for a colourful commemorative ceremony in the town of Sinje. "We need to mobilise resources for immediate gains," he added.

The anniversary had kicked off earlier on Tuesday with a message of hope from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the launch of a major UNHCR fund-raising campaign focused on youth and sports, while the refugee agency, its partner and millions of people around the world marked the event with a wide range of activities.

In his special message, Annan said that while the global refugee population was at its lowest level since 1980 and UNHCR had helped millions of people repatriate or resettle in a country of asylum, more than half those that the refugee agency cares for around the world have spent over five years in exile.

"Let this day serve as a reminder of our responsibility to help keep hope alive among those who need it most the millions of refugees and displaced who are still far from home," said the UN chief, who was in Europe.

In London, UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin launched a year-long global campaign called ninemillion.org, which aims to deliver education and sports programmes to nine million refugee children around the world through awareness- and fund-raising.

Two-thirds of the money raised will be distributed to support education in refugee communities. The rest will fund access for refugee youth to sport and play programmes by Toronto-based humanitarian agency, Right to Play. The campaign is supported by UNHCR corporate partners Nike and Microsoft.

To kick off the fund-raising effort, the Nike Foundation announced a matching grant for the first US$1 million donated to ninemillion.org. The sportswear company has produced special T-shirts featuring the campaign logo and has donated 40,000 colourful and durable balls for refugee kids.

With the sun rising in the east, the Asia-Pacific region was the first to mark the occasion and a wide range of activities were held in countries ranging from Australia to Afghanistan most based on the year's theme of "Hope."

© UNHCR/A.Rehrl
High Commissioner António Guterres (right), UNHCR Liberia Representative Mengesha Kebede, and a refugee family leave one of the trucks in a repatriation convoy that returned 125 Liberian refugees from Sierra Leone on World Refugee Day. The convoy was met by Guterres as it arrived at the Mano River border crossing between the two countries. He then travelled with the refugees to a transit centre.

In the Australian capital Canberra, public buildings around Lake Burley Griffine were lit blue the colour of the United Nations and World Refugee Day flags flew in the parliamentary zone. "You stand there, see this flag go up, you feel euphoric as you realize that this is in recognition of your hopes and wishes for safety to live a life in peace," said student and former Sudanese refugee Alex Taban, who came to Australia three years ago.

But in East Timor, celebrations were muted as UNHCR continued to help the tens of thousands of people recently displaced by fighting between rival groups in the capital Dili. Many people who had once again fled their homes, looked despondent when told it was World Refugee Day

In Malaysia, UNHCR staged a colourful carnival in its Kuala Lumpur compound. Some 200 refugees took part in the festivities, which were funded almost entirely by the private sector and individual donations.

Thousands of miles to the west, High Commissioner Guterres travelled early in the day to Liberia's Bo Waterside area and met a convoy bringing 125 refugees back home from camps in neighbouring Sierra Leone. UNHCR has helped repatriate some 69,000 Liberians, including 14,000 from Sierra Leone since October 2004.

On a bridge spanning the Mano River, which separates the two countries, Guterres climbed aboard a truck with 15 refugees. They arrived 40 minutes later at the Sinje transit centre, where the returnees were to spend a night before heading to their home villages. "Everybody has a right to a place called home," he told the returnees, while warning them of difficulties ahead and calling for more help from the international community.

He said Liberia deserved that help after 14 years of war and noted that the impoverished country was setting an example by hosting almost 20,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.

Elsewhere on the continent, South Africa's Minister of Home Affairs, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, marked World Refugee Day by launching a campaign to process the asylum applications of more than 100,000 refugees. "Our goal as government is to deal head-on with the backlog of asylum applications," she said.

In Uganda, refugees, UN representatives, government officials and others took part in a panel discussion on the country's recently passed refugee law. Supreme Court judge and former refugee, George Kanyeihamba, said that when he was helping draft the bill, "I was there with my heart, not only with my brains." The bill has been praised because it covers persecution on the basis of gender.

Players at a UNHCR soccer tournament in Belgrade's Zemun district warmed up with Nike's new green and yellow ball. Six teams took part in the contest, which was sponsored by Microsoft and co-run by the International Aid Network. The winners and runners-up were presented with Nike balls and free computer courses donated by Microsoft.

© UNHCR
Youngsters playing in a UNHCR-run soccer tournament in Belgrade on World Refugee Day pose with the special new Nike balls for refugees.
© UNHCR/R.Alikpala
Montagnards in Cambodia celebrate World Refugee Day at a UNHCR compound with games, laughter and fun.

In Turkey, celebrated singer Muazzez Ersoy visited refugee families in the central Anatolian cities of Kayseri and Aksaray and discussed their problems. UNHCR staff, government officials and humanitarian aid workers planted about 1,000 trees in an "Asylum Forest" near the capital Ankara's airport.

Other countries hosted a wide range of activities, including film festivals, photo exhibitions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions including lots of soccer. There will also be quizzes, drawing and essay-writing competitions, tree planting, seminars, workshops, speeches, public awareness campaigns, prayer meetings and poetry recitals. Special posters depicting the Hope theme went up all over the world.

Meanwhile, TV stations around the world aired a special message from UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie, in which she urged the world to remember the millions of uprooted people around the world. "Please help keep their hope alive and remember World Refugee Day," said the actress, who also spoke about refugee issues in a special CNN interview aired today.

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The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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