Archive for June 19th, 2009

Honoring World Refugee Day

Image Credit: UNHCR

Tomorrow is World Refugee Day, dedicated to raising awareness on the situation of refugees throughout the world. The commemoration of the world’s refugees and displaced came after the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 55/76 in December 2001. The resolution, aside from calling for World Refugee Day to be celebrated on June 20, also noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defined who is a refugee, and what rights they are provided under international law.

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend an event sponsored by UNHCR for World Refugee Day. UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and actress Angelina Jolie and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres were among the speakers, and Rose Mapendo, a Congolese refugee who started her own NGO, Mapendo International, received the Humanitarian of the Year award. The event also included a live feed from a Darfur refugee camp in eastern Chad, where a UNHCR staff member and a young refugee spoke to the audience. The speeches, videos, and photos were incredibly inspirational, and I have to admit I teared up several times.

Very awful photo taken by my phone at the event [Apologies]

Very awful photo taken by my phone at the event

Jolie’s speech occurred soon after news broke that she and Brad Pitt had donated $1 million to UNHCR to aid the over 2 million people displaced in Pakistan. The actress has traveled to Pakistan three times since becoming a goodwill ambassador for the agency in 2001, including after the 2005 earthquake, when her and Pitt visited survivors of the disaster.

During her World Refugee Day speech, Jolie emphasized the need to see refugees as individuals, as more than just a statistic. She said,”I know the strength that diversity has given my country – a country built by what some would now dismiss as asylum-seekers and economic migrants – and I believe we must persuade the world that refugees must not be simply viewed as a burden. They are the survivors. And they can bring those qualities to the service of their communities and the countries that shelter them.” Although she related several personal stories of her time with refugees around the world, she also provided some statistics, noting,80% of the world’s refugees are hosted and have been for years. Pakistan still hosts 1.7 million Afghan refugees.”

Although many of the day’s speakers discussed the plight of refugees in countries throughout the world, the concern over Pakistan’s displaced was voiced numerous times. In his speech, Guterres spoke of the two UN workers who were killed last week in the Peshawar hotel bombing. Although he noted, “Humanitarians are becoming more and more a target,” and this poses a terrible dilemma for international agencies, he asserted, “But UNHCR staff never ask me how to leave. They always ask me how to stay.” In fact, on June 12, a press release affirmed the international agency will not be pulling out of Pakistan:We are committed to helping the millions of displaced people in the region. Our operations have continued this week, and we have been working with our partners to register new arrivals in camps and to improve conditions – installing fencing, shades over tents and privacy walls. We intend to remain responsive to humanitarian needs and flexible in how we deliver them.”

Following Thursday’s main event, I attended a luncheon hosted by USA for UNHCR, which featured a talk moderated by Ann Curry with Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The smaller and more intimate event focused solely on the plight of refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson, whose non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute [CAI] has established dozens of schools in both countries, was truly impressive in person and during his remarks, noting that security and development can be addressed at the same time, particularly if we engage local communities. He asserted, “The greatest fear of the Taliban is not the bullet but the pen.”

According to Mortenson, there needs to be a greater effort to understand the needs of Pakistan’s displaced by actually engaging the refugees, rather than just blindly shuttling in funds. The IDPs, he noted, must be empowered to become self-sufficient,  whether that means providing them the tools to produce their own canvas tents or the skills necessary to rebuild their homes. This is a fundamental point, particularly given a statement today by Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar that the “operation in Swat Valley has almost ended and people displaced from the region will start returning to their homes from Saturday.”

Regardless if the resettlement of the IDPs takes place tomorrow, in the next month, or the next year, they must not be treated as the hapless victims being shuttled between camps and war-ravaged homes. They can be empowered to rebuild their communities, to essentially take control of their future if we give them the skills and resources needed to do so. As Angelina Jolie said in her interview with Ann Curry following the event yesterday, [click here to watch the video], “We desperately need them to contribute. We should be relying on them more and more there. They are a tough, smart bunch of people. And they are the future of their country.”

Although the plight of Pakistan’s displaced is a cause very important to me, I walked away from yesterday’s events struck by the global nature of this crisis. About two-thirds of the world’s forcibly uprooted people are displaced within their own country. In fact, according to the latest figures released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), “there were 26 million IDPs around the world in 2008, unchanged from 2007.” And those numbers refer only to those internally displaced, not those who are technically considered refugees under international law. In honor of World Refugee Day tomorrow, we should not only remember the toll of conflict on nations, but more importantly their impact on individuals – mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends. They are not just the victims of war, but they are the survivors. And that should inspire us all to get involved.

Below, is Jolie’s speech yesterday, [on a side note, I did not get to meet her, but I did, quite literally, bump into her, as I tried to navigate the crowd]:

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