This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
1) HIGH COMMISSIONER'S MISSION TO ASIA
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers ended a 2-day mission to South Korea today and flew to Japan, where he is scheduled to meet senior government officials and co-chair an international symposium on refugees in Africa.
In South Korea, Mr. Lubbers held talks with President Roh Moo-Hyun, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Young-Gwan Yoon, Minister of Justice Kum-Sil Kang and other government officials. They discussed South Korea's domestic asylum policy, the issue of North Koreans fleeing their country to China and elsewhere, and the Seoul government's funding of UNHCR. The High Commissioner thanked South Korea for its support for UNHCR, which dates back to the late 1970s during the Indochinese boat people exodus. Mr Lubbers urged South Korean officials to increase their ownership of UNHCR's global work for refugees by boosting their level of funding. Last year, South Korea contributed nearly 2 million dollars to UNHCR, about half of it in unearmarked funds for our regular annual budget.
In Japan, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama, senior vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Tetsuro Yano and other high-ranking government officials.
On Thursday and Friday - World Refugee Day - Mr. Lubbers will join his predecessor, former High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, at the International Symposium on Refugees in Africa. The symposium, which will be attended by several African officials, is being co-sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the Japan International Collaboration Agency and the Japan Association for UNHCR.
As the signing of a cease-fire agreement in Liberia has been postponed once again, UNHCR urges all parties to ensure that relief operations can safely resume in Liberia where hundreds of thousands of people are currently uprooted with aid workers unable to reach most of them.
Food and some domestic items were distributed yesterday to 540 Sierra Leonean refugees who sought shelter in and around the UNHCR office in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. Other refugees camping in the building opposite the office had received food and left for the displaced centres around Monrovia where they can get assistance from various agencies. There is a plan to move the refugees assembled around our office to Samukai refugee camp, as soon as the security situation permits.
Meanwhile more Sierra Leonean refugees have arrived in Monrovia from VOA camp outside the city and reported more violence and looting in and around the camp, including two deaths. UNHCR has not been able to confirm this, since we have not been able to visit the camp in days. However, the Liberian police, which deployed forces over the week-end in the camp, did confirm generalised violence. Fifteen looters were reportedly killed in the VOA camp area during a clash with the police.
UNHCR has not been able to access any of its four camps in the Monrovia area for the past week. The four camps once held 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, but many have since dispersed due to the fighting, seeking shelter in public buildings in and around Monrovia. UNHCR has requested the government's help in ensuring that the humanitarians can safely access the camps and resume assistance. Various NGOs working with UNHCR are ready to return to the camps with medicines, shelter material and other aid, as soon as security improves.
3) D.R. OF CONGO
UNHCR has closed Mole refugee camp in northeastern D.R. of Congo's Equateur Province, following the completion of the repatriation of some 2,700 Central African refugees. The last group of refugees left Mole yesterday (16 June) for the 10-minute boat trip across the Oubangui River to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
The return had only started 8 days ago and was completed in a record 7-day period. Although we had planned to repatriate a maximum of 350 refugees per day, on some days last week more than 500 refugees showed up for transportation home. Daily truck convoys transported the refugees from Mole to Zongo, on the shores of the Oubangui river, 34 kms away. From here, the refugees were ferried to Bangui aboard two boats carrying 100 passengers each. Several rotations were made to bring all the refugees across to Bangui. In Bangui, they boarded trucks which took them to drop-off points close to their homes.
Many of the returnees are former civil servants and residents of Bangui.
They had fled following a failed coup in the Central African Republic in May
2001. The recent change of government in CAR in March this year and a subsequent amnesty for those linked with the 2001 coup encouraged the refugees to go back.
In collaboration with our local NGO partners, we are now working to rehabilitate the environment in and around the camp that had hosted refugees for more than two years. The former campsite is being cleaned up, pit latrines are being closed and more trees are being planted. School and health facilities left in the camp will be handed over to the local population.
4) WORLD REFUGEE DAY
Preparations are underway in more than 50 countries worldwide to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20 (Friday). This year's theme, "Refugee Youth: Building the Future", aims to raise awareness of the challenges young refugees face, and to raise funds to improve their education opportunities.
Among the highlights is a symposium on African refugees held in Tokyo and co-chaired by High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers on June 19-20. In Geneva, UNHCR will host a classical music concert to raise funds for refugee youth in two African camps. In Washington, D.C., UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will launch the World Refugee Day celebrations, including a three-day festival featuring refugee cultures from around the world.
Italy and Spain are holding celebrity auctions, with proceeds going to refugee youth programmes. Britain will host Refuge: Dance for Change, a series of club nights in London and Manchester to raise awareness of refugee issues among local youth.
Other events include refugee outreach activities in schools (worldwide), and the launch of a website for refugee youth (Armenia) and a refugee youth bus for public awareness (Sierra Leone). A refugee youth band will be formed to perform in refugee settlements (Uganda), while puppet shows will highlight the issues of child soldiers and the sexual exploitation of children (Tanzania). A giant mural created by a renowned political cartoonist will show the trials and tribulations faced by asylum seekers (Slovenia).
For details of this year's World Refugee Day events, see our website www.unhcr.ch