At a time when the number of displaced shows no sign of easing, millions of people around the world spent World Refugee Day (WRD) paying tribute to those forced from their homes by war, persecution and other causes, such as climate change.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the tone for the day in a special message, noting that huge numbers had been displaced over the past 18 months due to a wave of conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. “These numbers represent far more than statistics; they are individuals and families whose lives have been upended, whose communities have been destroyed, and whose future remains uncertain,” he said.
“World Refugee Day is a moment to remember all those affected, and a time to intensify our support,” he stressed, while adding: “Despite budget constraints everywhere, we must not turn away from those in need. Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help.”
Meanwhile actress Angelina Jolie, who was appointed UNHCR Special Envoy earlier this year, marked WRD with a special message and a donation of US$100,000 for UNHCR’s work helping Syrian refugees. “The international community should rededicate itself to preventing conflict, addressing it when it erupts, and solving it more quickly, for that is the only way to create durable solutions for the refugees whose strength inspires us on this World Refugee Day,” she said.
This year, UNHCR and its partners, including governments, donors, non-governmental organizations, goodwill ambassadors and refugees themselves, are taking part in awareness-raising, cultural, educational, environmental and sport activities.
At the heart of many UNHCR activities, events and messages from celebrity supporters and goodwill ambassadors, is the refugee agency’s “Dilemmas” campaign. This builds on last year’s award-winning “1” campaign and depicts some of the tough choices facing refugees, helping the public to understand their dilemma.
The head of the UN refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, will mark the day in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, where he is scheduled to take part in a debate at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, on the vulnerability of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people in cities.
As in past years, landmarks around the world are being illuminated in UN blue, including the Colosseum in Rome, the Empire State Building in New York, the CN Tower in Toronto, and the world’s largest hemispherical building, the Ericsson Globe, or Globen, in Stockholm.
The day’s commemorations started in the east, after the first rays of the June 20 sun woke the people of the Asia-Pacific region. UNHCR’s office in Australia organized a special breakfast at the Canberra Multicultural Centre, where prizes and certificates were handed out to the winners of an art competition aimed at encouraging some 250 competing students in Australia and New Zealand to discuss and consider the challenges faced by refugees. Several former refugees spoke of their journeys to Australia and the support they have received.
The Japanese capital of Tokyo hosted several WRD events on Wednesday, including a symposium on resettlement. Japan became Asia’s first resettlement country three years ago. In the popular Harajuku district, students took part in a fashion show aimed at raising awareness about refugees. They wore blue-coloured costumes that are worn in refugee-producing and hosting countries.
Popular Chinese actress and UNHCR supporter, Yao Chen, opened a WRD photographic exhibition in Hong Kong’s busy Central district featuring the lives of refugees in Africa. The exhibition, sponsored by the HK Urban Renewal Authority, will run until July 2.
At a special WRD public lecture in the Indian capital, New Delhi, Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, a former senior UN official who started his career with UNHCR, spoke passionately on “Preserving Asylum in India: Achievements and Challenges.”
World Refugee Day was marked in neighbouring Pakistan with a series of events across the country. In Islamabad, Imran Zeb, a top official of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions spoke of the new regional “Solutions Strategy” for Afghan Refugees, which was endorsed by the international community at a conference in Geneva last month.
Hundreds of events are taking place in Africa, with refugees, humanitarian aid workers and officials determined to have a good time in camps and urban settings across the continent.
In South Africa, World Refugee Day resonated with the powerful voices of the Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir, who performed in the Johannesburg district with messages of tolerance and respect for foreigners. Artwork by refugee and South African children provided a backdrop for the concert.
Refugees cool off in a fountain during a special World Refugee Day outing to the historic Slovakian town of Košice. They are staying at the Emergency Transit Centre in Hummene while awaiting resettlement.
Meanwhile, UNHCR took diplomats, donors and aid partners to Mai-Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia, where 15,000 refugees have found shelter, including 1,200 unaccompanied minors. Many took part in a “Refugees’ Got Talent” competition, which provided much entertainment. The refugees also presented a drama about the risks that refugees from sub-Saharan Africa take in trying to reach North Africa.
In neighbouring Kenya, WRD activities were held in Nairobi as well as in Kakuma camp in the north-west and Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, in the north-east. The main event in Nairobi was held at the National Museum and included colourful cultural performances by eight refugee groups.
The UNHCR office in Central African Republic helped organize an exhibition of art and food made by urban refugees in Bangui. Entertainment included refugee children reciting poetry on the theme of “Dilemmas” – the performance was so touching, it had a government minister in tears.
In the North African country of Tunisia, UNHCR formally opened a new office in Tunis on Wednesday while in the southern town of Zarzis, La Maison de la Culture Ibn Charaf hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony to open a week-long refugee handicrafts and painting exhibition. Refugees at the nearby Choucha Transit Camp were given a special WRD meal.
To the north of Africa in Europe, the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, on Wednesday ran an article by the winner of a World Refugee Day essay competition for journalism students. The winner, Hélène Guinhut, who wrote about a refugee from the Republic of Congo, will get the chance to visit a UNHCR operation in the field.
Across the English Channel, the Tate Britain Millbank gallery in London on Wednesday hosted two live “refugee readings” of poetry and writing produced by members of Write to Life, a group comprising survivors of torture. Meanwhile, in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museums, refugees are giving guided tours of the collections, reciting poetry and providing interpretations of exhibits through the prism of exile.
In Dublin, Ireland, a group of ethnic Karen refugees living in County Mayo attend the screening today of “Moving to Mars,” a documentary about Karens resettled in the United Kingdom from camps in Thailand. The Asian guests of honour will wear traditional dress and perform Karen music.
In Vienna, staff from UNHCR and partner organizations are taking part in an umbrella march, which symbolizes the protection activities that are at the heart of UNHCR’s work worldwide for refugees. There will also be speeches and music.
Umbrella walks are a popular way of showing solidarity with the uprooted and were also be a feature of a commemorative event today in the Spanish capital, Madrid, where people bearing white brollies walked from a cultural centre to Lavapies Square, a popular meeting point for the city’s immigrant population.
In Kosovo, the Pristina National Library was illuminated overnight in blue and was also on Wednesday morning the venue for a lecture on refugees’ rights. At the field level, UNHCR organized activities aimed at promoting inter-ethnic dialogue and peaceful coexistence in five different locations.
Activities in Georgia’s remote Pankisi Valley included traditional horse racing by Chechen refugees, a concert, a football tournament and chess and Georgian wrestling tournaments. Handicrafts made by refugees were on sale.
Meanwhile, at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, a Swiss band, “Rebeteke,” performed in the atrium. The group’s members are descended from Greek refugees and the music they play, rebetiko, came from the merging of different kinds of folk music linked to refugees fleeing Asia Minor after World War I.
As the day lengthened in Asia, Africa and Europe, countries in the Americas began stirring for their own celebrations. In Washington, DC, acclaimed Afghan-born author, Khaled Hosseini, was scheduled later Wednesday to introduce a performance of “No Place Called Home” at The Kennedy Centre. The play, written and performed by Kim Schultz, tells the story of an American woman who accidentally falls in love with an Iraqi man while interviewing refugees.
In New York, the top third of the art deco Empire State Building will, for the third year in a row, be lit in blue on Wednesday night to mark World Refugee Day.
UNHCR has a varied and rich programme planned for Latin American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. In La Paz, Bolivian President will sign into force a new refugee law.
At an annual World Refugee Day event in Mexico City, Secretary of Interior Alejandro Poiré was scheduled to sign an agreement with a civil society group, Fundación Pro-Niños, to provide housing to unaccompanied refugee children. Permanent residency documents will be given to unaccompanied teenage refugees.
By Leo Dobbs in London, United Kingdom