GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) - People across the world were celebrating World Refugee Day on Wednesday amid a call on the global community to help the world's displaced and a warning that their numbers were set to rise.
In New York, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in his first World Refugee Day (WRD) message as UN chief that international solidarity was crucial to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of refugees and others forcibly displaced.
"As we mark World Refugee Day, let us recall what sets these families, children and elderly apart from others on the move around the globe. The difference is that they cannot go home. To ensure that they are cared for and protected until they can, let us offer them our support and understanding," he said.
High Commissioner António Guterres was in Africa Wednesday to celebrate the annual event, while UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors such as Angelina Jolie, Adel Imam, George Dalaras, Muazzed Ersoy and Osvaldo Laport have also lent their support with interviews, appearances and campaigning. There was no specific theme this year, but many countries chose their own.
Global WRD celebrations kicked off in New Zealand. In Wellington, an official ceremony was held at Parliament House while on a nearby soccer pitch a team of celebrities took on a World Refugee All Stars XI. Exhibitions, lectures, panel discussions and a refugee youth work expo were scheduled in other parts of the country.
Across the Tasman Sea in Canberra, Australia, World Refugee Day (WRD) flags flew in the parliamentary zone while the Captain Cook Fountain and other monuments were spotlighted in blue. A spectacular light show was also planned in Switzerland, where acclaimed artist Gerry Hofstetter gave the media a sneak preview on Tuesday of four bridges - one in each of the main linguistic areas of the Alpine nation - that he has illuminated with UNHCR logos, messages and images.
In Sydney, celebrities attended a Refugee Day Breakfast to raise funds for UNHCR's emergency relief work. The Queensland Integrated Refugee Community Health Clinic in the Brisbane suburb of Woolloongabba held a more modest World Refugee Day Morning Tea.
The refugee agency's Japan office held a big commemorative event in the downtown UN House. Activities included panel discussions, a photo exhibition about displaced Colombians, rap music by a Vietnamese refugee, an internet connection with a camp in Kenya, eastern cuisine prepared by refugees and a cooking class using fuel efficient stoves.
UNHCR organized or attended WRD programmes in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, while cultural events and the finals of a volleyball tournament were scheduled to be played in northern Sri Lanka's troubled Jaffna Peninsula.
If any country was the focus of particular international attention on WRD, it was Iraq. But no celebrations were planned in the traumatized nation because of dire insecurity. Events were held in neighbouring and nearby countries such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt, which host the bulk of the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees - a further 2 million are internally displaced.
A party for Iraqi refugee children was being organized Wednesday in Damascus by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in a child-friendly area of the UNHCR registration centre, which continued to register Iraqis. Clowns and performers will help UNICEF, UNHCR and the Ministry of Education in their bid to encourage 100,000 Iraqi refugee children to enrol in school.
Also in Syria today, UNHCR launched a campaign entitled "Express Yourself" to give a voice to refugees. A CD of music from Iraqi, Somali and Syrian musicians and singers was created by Dream Box productions and is being broadcast on Syrian radio stations and UN radio on June 20. A free download of this music is available at: http://www.unhcr.org/wrd/Refugee-Music-from-Syria.zip.
Further to the west, High Commissioner Guterres was spending his third World Refugee day in a row in Africa. After travelling overland on Tuesday from northern Uganda to South Sudan with returnees, he spent Wednesday meeting returnees around the town of Juba and meeting officials, including South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit and South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Simon Kumu Putch.
He had warned earlier that the numbers of people forcibly displaced through violence and persecution, as well as for other reasons, is set to rise in the future. "We are very concerned that many conflicts today are not being solved and are becoming worse and worse, resulting in many displacement situations," said Guterres, who was seeing first hand the tough conditions and challenges refugees face when returning to rebuild their lives after decades of conflict.
"For years we've seen a reduction in the numbers of refugees with some massive repatriation operations that have been very positive. South Sudan is an example of these positive solutions. But even with this repatriation record, in the last 12 months the numbers of refugees have been increasing," added Guterres.
UNHCR's 2006 Global Trends report released Tuesday showed the number of refugees in the world had risen for the first time in five years to nearly 10 million, mainly due to the crisis in Iraq.
Refugees and displaced people held WRD celebrations around Sudan, including in the volatile West Darfur region where aid workers have had a difficult time helping hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes to escape fighting between rebel forces and government troops and militias.
In eastern Chad's refugee camps, UNHCR organized a full programme of events focusing on the theme of children. Local radio broadcast messages about protecting children, while volleyball matches, photo exhibitions and music, drama and dance performances were held in UNHCR-run camps housing some 225,000 refugees from Darfur.
Further south in Burundi, the day was celebrated by refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and by some of the more than 340,000 returnees. There was a carnival atmosphere in Ryuigi as returnees banged drums and marched through the streets of the small town near the border with Tanzania.
In the Balkans, all passengers flying overseas from Montenegro on WRD will receive boarding passes bearing the UNHCR logo with the message: "Most people travel for pleasure. Refugees travel because they are forced to." Meanwhile, 200 celery roots bearing invitations to an exhibition of refugee photos were sent to dignitaries in Podgorica. The invite reads,"This plant has been uprooted, just like 21 million refugees around the globe."
At the end of his weekly audience in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI asked people to remember those forced to flee their homes because of persecution and threats. He said that accepting refugees was a "dutiful gesture of human solidarity."
In the Spanish capital Madrid, UNHCR on Wednesday awarded special plaques to the captains of two Spanish vessels that stopped to pick up Ethiopian, Eritrean and Ivorians boatpeople from their sinking vessels on the high seas. Ruben Vasquez told guests, including three of the Eritreans saved by his vessel Montfalcó, that he had done nothing special.
In London, 101 members of parliament marked Britain's annual Refugee Week by signing a special World Refugee Day motion. This noted that millions of displaced people needed help and urged "the government to firmly support the work of UNHCR and its partners."
Celebrations were also planned later in the day across the Atlantic, including a big ceremony in Washington, an awards ceremony in Mexico City for a WRD essay contest and the opening in Caracas, Venezuela of a film festival on refugees. Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie was to feature later Wednesday in an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper about her work with UNHCR and refugees.
Other countries hosted a wide range of activities, including film festivals, photo exhibitions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions. There were also quizzes, drawing and essay-writing competitions, tree planting, seminars, workshops, speeches, public awareness campaigns and poetry recitals.
UNHCR offices also continued to promote projects run with the help of corporate partners, including the ninemillion.org campaign - an innovative advocacy tool aimed at giving refugee youth greater access to sports and education. In Spain, a group of schoolchildren talked with refugee children in northern Uganda thanks to an internet link provided by UNHCR partner, Microsoft.
By Leo Dobbs in Geneva