UNHCR pays tribute to fallen colleagues on World Humanitarian Day

News Stories, 19 August 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
After a World Humanitarian Day ceremony at UNHCR headquarters Wednesday, UNHCR staff members individually paid respects at a memorial honouring those who gave their lives while serving refugees.

GENEVA, August 19 (UNHCR) Hours after a bomb killed another two UN employees in Afghanistan, UNHCR staff on Wednesday marked the first World Humanitarian Day by honouring their hundreds of colleagues in humanitarian organizations around the globe who have been killed while carrying out their duties.

"This has been a particularly painful year for UNHCR, with the loss of three colleagues in the same operation," Guy Avognon, the chairman of the Staff Council, said at a ceremony in Geneva. The three members of UNHCR staff killed in attacks this year in Pakistan are among 30 who have been lost in operations since 1987.

The date of 19 August, which is also Staff Memorial Day, commemorates the specific day in 2003 on which the UN office in Iraq was bombed, killing 22 people including Sergio Vieira de Mello, a UNHCR veteran who was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a Special Representative to the UN Secretary General at the time.

High Commissioner António Guterres, speaking at the headquarters ceremony after observing a minute of silence, said UNHCR was acting to improve security for staff but noted that the danger for humanitarian workers was increasing. The two UN staff members killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday worked with the UN mission helping to rebuild the country; some 700 humanitarian workers have died worldwide in the last decade.

Humanitarian workers have increasingly come to be seen as targets in conflicts, with traditional respect for aid workers disappearing and the lines between military and humanitarian action increasingly blurred both by armies and their armed opponents.

This has been a particularly painful year for UNHCR, with the loss of three colleagues in the same operation.

Guy Avognon, UNHCR Staff Council chairman

Humanitarian action is now sometimes not a source of protection, but a reason to be targeted, said Guterres, who was speaking on the same subject at a later event in Geneva's Parc des Bastions organized by OCHA and the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation.

"All these reasons have contributed to shrink humanitarian space and to increase the risks of humanitarian action," the High Commissioner said. "It is important to raise the attention of the international community for that, it is not only to commemorate our colleagues, it is not only to remember them, and it is to make the international community assume its responsibilities for these situations."

Last year 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in attacks, the highest yearly toll on record. The average number of attacks in the last three years has been three times the level of the previous nine years.

Among the casualties for UNHCR in Pakistan this year was veteran UNHCR driver Syed Hashim who was shot dead in Pakistan last February during the kidnapping of John Solecki, the head of UNHCR's Quetta sub-office. Solecki was released in April after two months in captivity.

In June, Aleksandar Vorkapic, a UNHCR staff member on emergency duty helping Pakistanis displaced by fighting in North West Frontier Province died in the bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar. And in July, UNHCR senior field assistant Zill-e-Usman was gunned down in a camp for internally displaced Pakistanis in Peshawar by unknown assailants.

Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone, who was in Pakistan this week discussing security concerns with staff and government officials, thanked staff for their work and said he fully understood the strain security threats and challenges placed on their lives. He said a concerted effort was being made to improve staff safety.

"One option that is not on the table is to cut and run," said Johnstone, who termed Pakistan one of UNHCR's most critical operations and the one by which the agency would be judged. "We are not going to abandon our mission in Pakistan because of the security threat. Rather, the question is how do we respond given the security threat. "

The statement reflected the dual role of World Humanitarian Day: paying tribute to those who have been killed or wounded while performing their duties; and honouring the huge number of humanitarian workers continuing to work despite the danger.

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Iraq: Angelina Jolie Visits Displaced IraqisPlay video

Iraq: Angelina Jolie Visits Displaced Iraqis

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie recently visited internally displaced Iraqis living in an informal settlement and a formal camp at Khanke, near Dohuk. There, she heard dramatic stories of escape from the more than 20,000 Yazidis who fled Sinjar and surrounding areas last August.
Iraq: The Plight of the YazidisPlay video

Iraq: The Plight of the Yazidis

Tens of thousands of people, including ethnic Yazidis originating from the Sinjar area, have been forced to find shelter in schools and unfinished structures across northern Iraq since fleeing their homes. The UN refugee agency has been trying to help, opening camps to provide better shelter.
Iraq: Preparing for Winter in DohukPlay video

Iraq: Preparing for Winter in Dohuk

Efforts are under way in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries to prepare refugees and the internally displaced for winter. But UNHCR remains deeply concerned that a $58.45 million funding shortfall could leave as many as a million people out in the cold.