World Refugee Day
Protecting the world's vulnerable people
Every year on June 20 the world honours the courage, resilience and strength of refugees. On this sixth anniversary of the United Nations-designated World Refugee Day, thousands of organisations in hundreds of countries came together to focus global attention not only on the plight of refugees and the causes of their exile, but also on their determination and will to survive and on the contributions they make to their host communities.
The protection of 20.8 million uprooted people is the core mandate of UNHCR. The agency does this in several ways. Using the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention as its major tool, it ensures the basic human rights of vulnerable persons and that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution. Longer term, the organization helps civilians repatriate to their homeland, integrate in countries of asylum or resettle in third countries. Using a world wide field network, it also seeks to provide at least a minimum of shelter, food, water and medical care in the immediate aftermath of any refugee exodus.
In addition to refugees, for a number of years UNHCR has also been helping specific populations of internally displaced people (IDPs). These are people who have also fled their homes because of threats to their safety but who have not crossed any internationally recognised borders. At the end of 2006, the total number of conflict-related IDPs worldwide was estimated at 24.5 million by the Norwegian Refugee Council's Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within their own countries by the conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and Sudan. By the end of 2006, the number of IDPs protected or assisted by UNHCR as part of the collaborative UN effort reached a record high of almost 13 million (more than half of the estimated IDP population in the world). This is almost double the previous year's figure and is the single biggest reason for the sharp increase in the overall number of people under UNHCR's mandatesfrom 21 million in 2005 to almost 33 million in 2006.
Often classified unfairly with economic migrants, refugees flee their country not for economic gain but to escape persecution, the threat of imprisonment and even threats to their lives. They need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma and rebuild their hopes for a better future.
On World Refugee Day, let's not forget that some day in the future any one of us could be knocking at a stranger's door hoping to find a safe and friendly shelter. We should extend refugees the same kind of welcome we would like to receive if we were in their position.
While most refugees want to go home, some cannot safely return. But wherever they are, refugees will always strive to pick up the pieces and start over. The courage and determination demonstrated during their darkest hours will serve them well in rebuilding a new life. On World Refugee Day, let us honour them for these qualities and recognise the richness and diversity they bring to our societies.