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.
The UNHCR team in Liberia is urgently looking at ways to help several hundred Sierra Leonean refugees who have been camping in and around our office in the capital Monrovia. The refugees started gathering there last Sunday, after several refugee camps in the outskirts of the capital were overrun by rebels.
In addition, some of the refugees who were trapped in the VOA camp by the fighting have started to arrive in Monrovia, using bush roads. They brought worrying reports of widespread incidents of violence, intimidation and extortion during and after the fighting that raged at the end of last week on the outskirts of the capital. There were reports that three refugees may have been killed, in unknown circumstances, and others arrested. So far, UNHCR has been unable to verify the reports.
UNHCR staff in Monrovia held a meeting yesterday with a senior official of the Liberia Refugee, Repatriation, Resettlement Commission (LCRRR, the government body in charge of refugees) to convey our concerns about safety in the refugee camps around the capital and to push for assistance to those Sierra Leoneans who are camping near our office in town.
Responding to our request, the authorities have indicated they would dispatch monitoring teams to the refugee camps, wherever possible, to assess the situation and inform UNHCR accordingly. Echoing the concerns expressed by the UN Liberia Country Team, which is now evacuated to Abidjan, UNHCR also requested that security be provided to humanitarian workers so they can resume their work. This would allow our staff to return to the camps.
UNHCR's four refugee camps around Monrovia were hosting about 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees when the fresh round of hostilities started. UNHCR believes it is highly likely that most Sierra Leonean refugees at the three camps which were overrun by rebels have dispersed together with the local population, leaving the camps empty.
The High Commissioner remains extremely concerned about the chaotic and dangerous security situation in Liberia and its humanitarian impact. UNHCR fully supports the ongoing efforts to reach a cease-fire and the High Commissioner has urged the subsequent deployment of a peacekeeping force to monitor it and to allow the rapid resumption of humanitarian activities for Liberia's suffering population and refugees.
The Sierra Leoneans who gathered by our office are receiving water supplied by MERLIN, an NGO, and medical assistance by MSF and MERCI at a nearby clinic. We have discussed with the government ways of distributing food, which the World Food Programme has agreed to provide. A registration is due to take place today for that purpose. UNHCR continues to try to convince refugees - - for their own safety - - to assemble in existing camps for internally displaced persons or seek shelter within the local community. We are also looking at ways of resuming repatriation by ship to Sierra Leone as soon as possible.
More on this story on our website www.unhcr.ch
2) CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
More than 1,300 Central African Republic refugees from north-west Democratic Republic of Congo have returned home since Monday (9 June), when UNHCR launched a repatriation programme to assist more than 2,600 CAR refugees who want to go home. The refugees are in a camp at Mole, 34 kms from the small town of Zongo, on the Oubangui river.
Daily truck convoys bring refugees from Mole to Zongo, where the refugees board boats hired by UNHCR to ferry them across to the CAR capital of Bangui, less than 10 minutes away. The two boats, which carry 100 passengers each, make several rotations to bring across the returnees and their belongings. Once in Bangui, the refugees, many of them former civil servants and residents of the capital, are transported to various drop-off points in the town.
UNHCR had planned to move up to 350 refugees daily in an operation that was expected to run for eight days. However, more than the expected numbers have shown up every day, eager to return home. Yesterday, for example, we transported more than 500 refugees to Bangui. We expect to complete this repatriation this weekend, if the current pace of return continues.
This week's journey home marks the end of a two-year exile for the CAR refugees in D.R. Congo. A change of government following a coup d'état by former army chief of staff, François Bozize in March this year and a recent amnesty to those linked with a failed coup in 2001 have facilitated their return.
CAR refugees from the Republic of Congo have also begun to return home. A first group of 57 refugees was flown home from Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo on Tuesday (10 June). Weekly flights are expected to bring back some 300 people who have registered to return to Bangui.
Many of the returnees say they are happy to return home, but are finding some of their homes have been looted. To help the refugees restart their lives, UNHCR is providing a re-integration package which consists of kitchen sets, jerry cans, blankets and mats. In Bangui, they will get a food package from the World Food Programme.
3) UNHCR WELCOMES OAS RESOLUTION
Thirty-four states from throughout the Americas have adopted by general consensus a resolution on the protection of asylum seekers, refugees, returnees, stateless and internally displaced persons during the 33rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in Santiago de Chile from June 8 to 10.
The resolution encourages the few American states which have not yet ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to do so, and calls on countries to adopt national mechanisms for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees in accordance with international standards. It also introduces two important innovations: it urges states to establish specific standards for the reception of asylum seekers and refugees, and emphasizes the importance of combating xenophobia and racial discrimination against these vulnerable groups. The latter was proposed by the Mexican delegation, in line with the recommendations made at the International Conference on Racial Discrimination held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
UNHCR's Director for the Americas, Hope Hanlan, said the resolution was good news for refugees and internally displaced people in the region, taking us closer to a more comprehensive response to the needs of the victims of persecution and armed conflict.
Thirty American states have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Approximately 1 million asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons are of interest to UNHCR in North America. In South America over 2 million displaced Colombians continue to pose the most significant humanitarian challenges in the hemisphere.
4) HIGH COMMISSIONER TO SOUTH KOREA AND JAPAN
The High Commissioner departs tomorrow (Saturday) on a six-day mission to South Korea and Japan. He will spend two days in South Korea, where he is scheduled to meet several government officials, including President Roh Moo-hyun, as well as members of the business community. The High Commissioner wants to thank South Korea for its continuing support for UNHCR. In 2002, South Korea provided nearly $2 million to UNHCR in cash and in-kind contributions. Mr. Lubbers travels to Japan on Tuesday, where he will join former High Commissioner Sadako Ogata and Japanese and African officials at an International Symposium on Refugees in Africa on June 19 & 20, World Refugee Day. You may recall this important event was covered in a briefing here last week.
5) WORLD REFUGEE DAY JUNE 20
UNHCR offices and our partners around the globe are planning a variety of events to mark World Refugee Day on June 20. The theme of this year's World Refugee Day is "Refugee Youth: Building the Future." Events range from open air concerts and numerous events and activities in schools to special websites, art and photo exhibits and national public awareness campaigns. As just mentioned, the High Commissioner will mark World Refugee Day at the International Symposium on Refugees in Africa on June 19 & 20, at the UN University in Tokyo.
Here in Geneva, we will mark World Refugee Day at UNHCR headquarters with a special fund-raising concert of classical music. Up to 500 people will fill UNHCR's atrium to listen to two philharmonic orchestras (one French, one Swiss), and the Swiss mezzo-soprano Brigitte Balleys, playing music by Mozart, Dvrc and Gluck. There will also be a reception and an exhibition of paintings by the Cambodian artist, Kosal, who arrived in France as a refugee in 1983. Elsewhere in Switzerland, among a range of other activities, around 50 public buildings and the Jet d'Eau in Geneva will be illuminated in blue light to mark World Refugee Day. Tickets for the concert at UNHCR are still available at SF 500, SF 300 and SF 150 (tel. 022 739 8302). The proceeds will go to fund educational projects for young refugees in two refugee camps in Africa.
For more details about the UNHCR special concert see our website www.unhcr.ch