(UNHCR) – Millions marked World Refugee Day with events across the globe on Friday as UNHCR reported that the number of forcibly displaced people was higher than it had ever been since the end of World War II.
The annual Global Trends report said that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced around the world stood at 51.2 million, up 6 million on figures for a year earlier. The increase was driven by the war in Syria, which shows no sign of ending.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who is marking World Refugee Day with UNHCR staff and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said the new record high reflected “the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed.”
In Thailand’s Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie also called for an end to the vicious cycle of violence and displacement. “Preventing armed conflict should be a collective responsibility of the international community,” she said, adding: “This staggering surge in refugee numbers shows that the world is failing to meet that responsibility.”
New conflicts over the past year have made the world a more dangerous place since the last World Refugee Day (WRD), and more people have come together to remember the millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced after one of the most challenging years so far in UNHCR’s more than six decades-long history.
UNHCR staff have been planning for months for WRD and have prepared a wide range of activities, including light shows, film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, food bazaars, fashion shows, cultural performances, concerts and sports contests, including football tournaments in refugee camps like Jordan’s Za’atari, to coincide with the soccer World Cup in Brazil.
There were also competitions, tree planting, speeches, panel discussions, poetry recitals and photography exhibitions. UNHCR has been working with media organizations around the globe to promote World Refugee Day and has launched its most ambitious social media campaign to date.
The agency’s partners, including governments, donors and non-governmental organizations, were doing their part to help, and refugees around the world participated while enjoying much needed recognition. In many countries, public buildings or monuments were illuminated in blue, to symbolize UNHCR and its work.
An unprecedented number of celebrities were also pitching in this year with special messages or by taking part in events, including Goodwill Ambassadors Barbara Hendricks, Osvaldo Laport, Khaled Hosseini, Alek Wek and Yao Chen along with supporters such as Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson from the United Kingdom, American film director Wes Anderson and Pakistani human rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai.
As part of its “1 Family” campaign, UNHCR has also been asking all people to share their refugee stories and these can be seen on a special World Refugee Day web site: http://stories.unhcr.org/.
The sun and World Refugee Day started rising in the Pacific, where the government of the tiny island nation of Nauru has declared a public holiday. Australia has controversially sent people arriving irregularly by boat to Nauru, where they are held while their refugee status is determined. There are 41 refugees in Nauru.
In Australia, events were organized across the country, including a UNHCR photographic exhibition, “In Perspective,” at Canberra’s Nishi Gallery. The moving and iconic images portray the escalating global refugee crisis. Australia for UNHCR held its WRD breakfast today in Sydney, with sports legends Ian Chappell (cricket) and Phil Kearns (rugby union) joining the event. Former South Sudan refugee, Aliir Aliir, who plays for Aussie rules football club Sydney Swans, was also a special guest.
Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district hosted a typical lightweight family tent of the type used by UNHCR to provide vital shelter to huge numbers of forcibly displaced people. Passing pedestrians were shown inside the tent by UNHCR staff, who explained the agency’s work. UNHCR corporate partner, UNIQLO, promoted World Refugee Day in one of its most popular stores, encouraging shoppers to bring in their old clothes and help refugees. Meanwhile, refugees who run restaurants in the Japanese capital took part in a special dinner featuring their cuisine and culture.
The highlight of today’s events in Nepal is a 10-day programme starting on World Refugee Day of photo exhibitions, panel discussions and documentaries, including a film shot in eastern Nepal’s Beldangi refugee camp and directed by acclaimed French director Regis Wargnier, who won an Oscar for “I’Indochine” in 1992.
UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie spent World Refugee Day in Thailand, meeting Karenni refugees from Myanmar. On her fourth visit to the refugee camps in Thailand, she met three generations of refugees who have lived in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp since 1996. In Hong Kong, UNHCR launched its popular refugee film festival.
In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, High Commissioner Guterres attended an event marking the donation of medical equipment to a health clinic in the southern suburbs under a joint UNHCR and the UN Development Programme project funded by the European Union. Health care for Syrians is a pressing issue.
UNHCR’s Jordan office helped to organize men’s and women’s football tournaments in Za’atari refugee camp to coincide with the World Cup. Similar tourneys are being staged in other countries, including in Dadaab, Kenya.
In North Africa, UNHCR organized an 8.6-kilometre run along the famous seafront corniche in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The energetic jog attracted 500 participants. Members of the colourful Clowns without Borders performed for young refugees in Cairo.
A wide range of activities were held in the four camps of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex with more than 400,000 mainly Somali refugees. They include dance and music performances as well as poetry recitals carrying messages of peace. Also in Kenya, a full WRD programme was also under way in Kakuma camp, joined by long-distance running great and peace activist, Tegla Lorupe, who still holds several world records.
South Africa marked World Refugee Day with a fashion show in Cape Town, a film festival in Durban and a special performance in Pretoria by singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, known as “The Voice” of South Africa. He performed the anti-apartheid struggle song, “Weeping” and “When You Go Back,” which carry messages of strength and resilience for those in exile.
Award-winning musician Rokia Traoré got things swinging when she visited refugees from her native Mali during a WRD visit to Goudoubo camp in Burkina Faso. It is home to 10,000 refugees who fled conflict in Mali in 2012. She could not resist playing the drums for an appreciative audience of young and old.
In troubled South Sudan’s Maban County, some 126,000 Sudanese refugees in four refugee camps received their second 15-day food ration of the month on World Refugee Day. The welcome distribution came at a time of serious food shortages because of the difficulty getting aid to the camps due to insecurity.
Many in Africa were also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the coming into effect of the ground-breaking African Union Refugee Convention, which has saved the lives of millions of people on the African continent. Built on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it has been signed and ratified by 45 African countries.
In Geneva, UNHCR released a free mobile news app developed by its Digital Engagement Section. The app features news and human interest stories, striking photosets and full-screen video reportage – a must-have tool for people who work on behalf of refugees. Lulendo, a singer and former refugee from Angola. performed at a staff event in UNHCR headquarters.
One of the most popular ways to mark WRD is to spotlight it at night in blue. In the Austrian capital, Vienna, UNHCR arranged for one of the city’s most famous coffee houses, Café Landtmann on the busy Ringstraße, to be lit until 1:30 am earlier today. The illumination carried a message referring people to the stories site mentioned above.
On World Refugee Day, many Bulgarians managed to mark the important date despite deadly floods in the east of the country. Earlier today, UNHCR helped launch a municipal bus painted with murals representing the plight of refugees by popular street artists Stoyan Stoynov and Atanas Skondov. The bus will ply a regular city route in Sofia over the next month.
Across the Atlantic in the United States, The Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, gathering mainly resettled female refugees from around the world, is due to perform a special WRD concert this evening at Washington, DC’s, Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts. American actress Kat Graham will introduce them. Events are also taking part in neighbouring Canada, including a high-profile event involving refugees in Ottawa.
In South America, young people and music are at the heart of an ambitious project with Fundamusical (which promotes the integration of refugee children in Venezuela through music) to mark World Refugee Day with flash mob events in Caracas and three states bordering Colombia. Orchestras including refugees were rehearsing today for the events this weekend.In Quito, Ecuador, the UNHCR office organized a fair which gathered refugees who run their own small businesses. Colombia, meanwhile has organized an event involving life-size illustrations of refugees and internally displaced people in solutions-based settings. The idea is to invite passers-by to literally jump into the scenes and integrate themselves in the pictures, thereby symbolically contributing to solutions. Photos will be taken and posted on social media. Many other countries in the continent had events planned.
By Leo Dobbs in Geneva