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High Commissioner Guterres marks World Refugee Day in Uganda

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ARUA, Uganda, June 20 (UNHCR) - On only his sixth official day in office, the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, visited today refugees in Uganda, a country he praised as "an extraordinary example of generosity and solidarity towards refugees."

Guterres arrived in Uganda - his first UNHCR mission - to celebrate World Refugee Day on Monday. At a colourful ceremony in Ikafe refugee settlement in northern Uganda, he praised the courage of refugees who have survived not only war in their own country, but also the challenges of living in exile.

"Courage is necessary first of all to fight against persecution, to face war, to face all the attempts to withdraw from refugees their basic human rights," he told thousands of mostly Sudanese refugees at a World Refugee Day ceremony.

"Courage is also necessary to come here to Uganda and not to rely on the assistance of others, but to try to rely on yourself, farming the land that was given to you," he said, referring to Uganda's self-reliance strategy for refugees. After hearing from many refugees that they long to return home to South Sudan now that a peace accord has been signed, Guterres said the returnees will also need courage to face a devastated land, and perhaps find that many of their family and friends have died in the fighting.

He said Uganda's generosity towards refugees since 1940 has been truly remarkable, more so today than ever before. "This is not an easy world for refugees. In countries much richer than Uganda, in my part of the world, we've seen policies more and more restrictive about refugees."

He lamented a tendency in some parts of the world to confuse refugees and asylum seekers with terrorists or economic migrants.

"What you have proven here in Uganda is that refugees are not terrorists, they are the first victims of terrorism," he said, making a reference to the repeated displacement of the Sudanese refugees due to attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army within Uganda.

To loud applause, he said the Sudanese refugees in Uganda "are not migrants. They did not come here voluntarily to work for a better life, they came here because they were forced to flee their own country. They fled persecution. They fled for their basic human rights. This is the lesson that Uganda is teaching the world."

He expressed regret that UNHCR is not able to adequately match the generosity of the Ugandan government, and called upon donor countries to increase their support to African nations.

Ikafe settlement opened in September 2003 and houses 10,000 refugees. It is located in the West Nile region, which is home to a total of 176,000 refugees - the vast majority of refugees in the country.

Marking World Refugee Day, the High Commissioner was entertained by songs, dances and poems. A secondary school choir of boys and girls sang an a cappella song about courage, lamenting the loss of many of their fathers in the fighting in Sudan. Two young children recited poems calling for courage: "When I am sleeping under big trees in the open, when I go hungry, when I lost my loved ones in the war."

A group of young Ugandan and Sudanese of the Acholi ethnic group performed a highly energetic dance to calabash rattles, drums and whistles.

Earlier on Monday, Guterres visited a verification centre at Impevi, where he chatted with refugees who had fled twice - first from South Sudan, and again when the Lord Resistance Army attacked their settlement in Uganda. These refugees are now being re-registered through a new database system aimed at improving assistance and protection.

The High Commissioner's three-day mission will also take him to settlements for recent arrivals from South Sudan (fleeing cross-border attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army) and for internally displaced Ugandans.

Recognising the challenges of displacement, this year's World Refugee Day pays tribute to the strength and courage of people uprooted from their homes worldwide. Other activities surrounding June 20 include concerts and cultural events in cities like Moscow and Washington, D.C., a sports festival for refugee families in Kazakhstan, and refugee film festivals in Cambodia and Romania.

In Guinea, a special assembly will be held on the "Conakry Declaration", urging African governments and the international community to prevent conflicts and promote peace and stability in the region. France is organising "Hope Hurdles", a series of hurdle races by renowned athletes and academics aimed at highlighting the difficulties and obstacles faced by refugees and asylum seekers.

By Kitty McKinsey
In Arua