Denmark's Crown Princess Mary visits UNHCR headquarters

News Stories, 13 May 2008

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner António Guterres and Crown Princess Mary in discussion in front of a bust of Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen and beside a case displaying UNHCR's two Nobel Peace Prize medals.

GENEVA, May 13 (UNHCR) Denmark's Crown Princess Mary on Tuesday made an official visit to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, where High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres praised her country's global engagement in the refugee cause.

The Australia-born princess, dressed in a dark trouser suit, received a red-carpet welcome at midday in UNHCR's seven-storey atrium. She received flowers from three Danish children Simon, 4, Astrid, 6, and Mathilde, 8, whose father Morten Ussing is a UNHCR staffer seconded to UNAIDS.

She spoke in Danish to the children and their mother before posing with Guterres for photos in front of the UN and Danish flags. Another group of children waved Danish flags as UNHCR staff looked on from the lobby and galleries above.

"It is my great pleasure to welcome you to UNHCR," Guterres told the princess during an introductory meeting in his office. "Denmark has a very long tradition of asylum ... and is a very relevant partner in refugee work worldwide."

The High Commissioner noted the very strong "strategic partnership"; between UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council, of which the princess is a royal patron. "You can be very proud of the work of Danish volunteers and civil society they are brave, committed and effective," he said. "Denmark is one of our most relevant partners."

Guterres presented the princess, who also expressed an interest in the legal aspects of the agency's work and the 1951 Refugee Convention, with a UNHCR publication, "Refugee Protection in International Law."

Noting the difficult challenges posed by migration, climate change, environmental degradation, conflict and displacement, Guterres said the 21st Century "will be a century of people on the move" presenting complex protection problems.

Following a working lunch, the princess was given a series of informal briefings by senior UNHCR staff from the Department of International Protection Services, the Regional Bureau for Africa and the Division of Operational Services, which gave a demonstration of the agency's emergency room operations.

In addition to UNHCR's emergency and technical work, the briefings focused on international refugee protection, resettlement, internal displacement, durable solutions for refugees and children at risk.

At the end of her four-hour visit, Guterres showed Princess Mary the agency's two Nobel Peace Prizes displayed in a glass case in the atrium, before escorting her to her vehicle. "It really was a valuable experience," she said.

Aside from the Danish Refugee Council, Princess Mary is also royal patron of a number of other charities in Denmark that focus on health, children's welfare, diversity and refugee issues. She has established The Mary Foundation, which seeks to encourage tolerance of diversity and to improve lives compromised by environment, heredity, illness or other circumstances which can isolate or exclude people socially.




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Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story