(UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency on Friday issued a statement mourning the death of South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela, who worked with UNHCR in helping refugees. The globally revered Mandela died on Thursday in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
“It is with very great sadness that I have heard the news of the death of Nelson Mandela,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a special statement. “His extraordinary wisdom, selflessness and compassion not only held South Africa together following the collapse of apartheid, preventing potentially immense displacement, but made him a true global symbol for the oppressed and persecuted, and an example to all of us.”
Guterres said that in a world where conflict forces millions to flee their homes every year, “the death of such an outstanding champion of peace should give us all pause for thought. His passing is a profound loss.”
Mandela and his Nelson Mandela Foundation played prominent roles in efforts to counter xenophobia and racism in South Africa, including on several occasions working side-by-side with UNHCR in helping refugees.
In late 1991, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata met Mandela when she headed the United Nations delegation to the Codesa multiparty talks on South Africa’s peaceful and democratic transition from apartheid. UNHCR opened the first UN office in South Africa, in Johannesburg, in September 1991, allowing the agency to facilitate the voluntary return of South African refugees and exiles between 1991 and 1993.
On June 20, 1997, and to mark Africa Refugee Day (a date, that is today marked worldwide and annually as World Refugee Day), President Mandela appealed to African countries for unity in preventing forced displacement through stepped up efforts to prevent and end wars.
In February 2001, as he was facilitating talks between Burundi’s warring factions, Mandela took time to visit Burundian refugees at a UNHCR camp in western Tanzania where he explained the negotiations and listened to their concerns.
In 2007, Mandela helped bring together an independent group of global leaders, known as “The Elders” and dedicated to promoting peace and human rights and to finding solutions for other global problems. Another link between Mandela and UNHCR, was that both had won the Nobel Peace Prize.