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UNHCR on the first World Refugee Day

Statement by High Commissioner on the first World Refugee Day

As a voice for millions of largely voiceless people around the world, we at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are grateful to the U.N. General Assembly for declaring June 20 the first ever World Refugee Day. Refugees deserve our recognition and our respect. Respect is beyond tolerance.

But if you are a refugee parent watching your child grow up in a squalid camp, without much hope of ever going back home, or if you are a traumatised and desperate asylum seeker turned back at the border of an affluent nation, there may be little comfort in the fact that the United Nations has given you a special day. For a refugee, every day spent in exile or in flight is a day too long.

This is why this first World Refugee Day should be a time for all of us, especially decision-makers around the globe, to pause and think about the loneliness and sense of abandonment that many refugees must be feeling today. And we have to ask ourselves what we can do about it.

Half a century ago, a group of nations here in Geneva adopted the world’s first Refugee Convention. It was a generous document, born of the moral shock of World War II. It stemmed from the conviction that we have a moral duty to protect people persecuted for no reason other than for being who they are. The Convention’s backers rightly decided that these people deserve our help and our respect.

Today, fifty years later, the world in many ways is a freer and a better place. But in this era of globalisation and unprecedented prosperity, some among us have also become disillusioned by the vicious cycle of war and suffering that has produced millions of refugees. The daily headlines and seemingly endless images of human suffering have left many people with a sense of hopelessness. The sense of responsibility and commitment to helping those in need has given way to indifference and cynicism.

Making solemn declarations on the World Refugee Day is not good enough. We also have to revive the commitment to the people my organisation serves. We must make sure each and every day that those who flee persecution are given our protection and not turned away or forced back into danger.

Affluent nations should do much more to support humanitarian work in regions immediately affected by refugee. It is still the earth’s poorest nations that host the most refugees and which bear a burden disproportionate to their modest means.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to get serious about tackling the root causes of refugee crises and finding durable solutions for them. This, needless to say, is risky and complicated, as we have seen over the past decade in northern Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Kosovo. It may require difficult political initiatives and sometimes a military peacekeeping commitment. But if we want to reduce the number of refugees worldwide, we have to address the problems that drive them into exile in the first place. We must also find ways for refugees to restart their lives, whether by returning home or settling in a new country. Protecting refugees is not an optional act of charity. It is a moral imperative and a legal obligation.

As individuals, we must not lose faith in our own ability to bring change. Seemingly isolated personal acts multiplied a million times over can change the world. There may be newly arrived refugees in your community who could benefit from your help, friendship and encouragement as they work to rebuild their lives. We need to acknowledge the contributions that individual refugees have made in their new communities. Humanitarian organisations that work with refugees – both locally and internationally – also need your support. And politically, your opinion can influence those in government responsible for asylum issues or providing funding for humanitarian needs.

My colleagues at UNHCR and I are often asked how we maintain our optimism in the face of such enormous human suffering. The answer is worth repeating, especially on this first World Refugee Day. We do not lose hope because we see on a daily basis the incredible courage and perseverance of refugees who have lost just about everything. We see what they have done, despite all the odds. If they refuse to give up hope, how can we?

ENDS

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