The symposium, co-sponsored by the government of Japan, Japan Association for UNHCR and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), aims to refocus attention on Africa and look for solutions to the continent's long-standing refugee crises. Participants from the Japanese government, ambassadors from various African countries and regional bodies, as well as refugee officials, will look at burning issues and solutions being experimented in Africa, with the aim of finding specific responses to the continent's problems.
"The aim of the symposium is to look at refugee problems on the continent, and to what extent they can be solved or even prevented," said Khassim Diagne, Senior Policy Advisor in UNHCR's Africa Bureau, at a recent media event in Geneva. Another goal is to sensitise Japanese policy-makers and the Japanese public at large on the challenges faced by UNHCR in implementing its protection mandate in Africa.
High Commissioner Lubbers will co-chair sessions of the symposium with his predecessor, Sadako Ogata, and Ambassador Said Djinnit of the African Union.
Lubbers will lead the debate, "Protracted Refugee Situations In Africa: Self-reliance Strategies Pending Durable Solutions." Ogata, the former UNHCR chief and current Co-Chair of the Japanese-sponsored Commission on Human Security, will chair a session on "Return, Reconstruction And Peace-Building: The Contribution Of Returnees." Ambassador Djinnit, Interim Commissioner of the African Union, will lead another session dedicated to the role of regional organisations and civil society in early warning, emergency response, conflict prevention and peace building.
A number of ministers and academics from various African countries will travel to Tokyo to seize this rare opportunity to debate responses to long-standing refugee crises. Among them are government officials from Sierra Leone - a country trying to reintegrate refugees after 10 years of bloody civil war - and from Zambia - home to a pilot project to integrate refugees in the national economy. They will share their experiences with their Japanese and international humanitarian counterparts during three separate sessions on refugee-related issues.
"The symposium is a rare opportunity to put African countries' representatives in contact with one of our main donors," says UNHCR's Diagne. "Other aspects concerning the African continent in particular will be addressed, such as the need to link reconstruction and development and to bridge a gap that too often remains wide open in post-conflict situations."
The event is also expected to attract broad participation from the media and civil society, including a number of non-governmental organisations. At the same time, three African refugees in Japan - refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as a Burundian asylum seeker - have been invited to participate and share their experiences.
The symposium will be opened on June 19 by the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tetsuro Yano.
Japan has been one of UNHCR's main donors for over a decade. Contributions to the agency's programmes sharply increased during Ogata's years as High Commissioner, from $51 million in 1990 to $117 million last year. This year, Japan has already contributed over $13 million to UNHCR's operations for 2003. Another $71 million is expected in June, of which more than half is for Africa.
The symposium, which comes in the context of Japan's "Year for Soaring Cooperation with Africa," is also a signal of Japan's commitment to refugee issues and Africa. The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) process - into which the symposium's recommendations will be feeding at TICAD's next edition, TICAD III, in late September - bears witness to this unfailing support. Japan has also been appealing strongly in favour of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in the context of the G8's Africa Action Plan.
In a recent policy paper titled "Solidarity between Japan and Africa," the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that "it is necessary to assist countries' efforts for the transition from conflict to reconstruction and to assist refugees, who are both the victims of conflicts and possible players in the future development."
The Tokyo symposium is also in line with High Commissioner Lubbers' "Convention Plus" initiative to complement the 1951 Refugee Convention with new agreements, such as on burden-sharing in refugee emergencies.
"Some African leaders did raise the subject last year in Durban (at the inauguration of the African Union), and UNHCR is looking at commissioning a study on the cost represented by large refugee populations in host countries," said Diagne.
"Should the symposium be a success - and I have no doubt it will - we have already received indications from other capitals, such as London and Berlin, that they could hold similar events in the future. Indeed, this is a unique opportunity to strengthen UNHCR's partnership with governments, for the benefit of African refugees at large."
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