At an event marking the launch of activities in the United States for World Refugee Day, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie appeared alongside UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to call on the world to recognize millions of victims of conflict around the world not as a burden but as a potential gift.
“I know the strength that diversity has given my country – a country built by what some would now dismiss as asylum-seekers and economic migrants – and I believe we must persuade the world that refugees must not be simply viewed as a burden,” said Jolie. "They are the survivors. And they can bring those qualities to the service of their communities and the countries that shelter them.
“The refugees I have met and spent time with have profoundly changed my life,” Jolie added. “Today . . . I want to thank them for letting me into their lives.”
Jolie was speaking at a World Refugee Day event at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. hosted by UNHCR and moderated by NBC television anchor Ann Curry. The event included a live feed from the Djabal refugee camp in eastern Chad, where a UNHCR staff member on the ground spoke to the assembled audience. The event comes two days before World Refugee Day, but will be UNHCR’s main WRD activity in the US.
High Commissioner Guterres spoke of the increasing difficulties and dangers facing the world’s more than 42 million uprooted people as well as those trying to help them. He said the situation was particularly challenging in internal displacement situations which can involve a multiplicity of actors – rebel factions, politically or ethnically linked militias, bandits, government troops and international forces. If people are unable to flee across borders, then humanitarian agencies must try to get help to them inside or near conflict zones.
“This is a dangerous and changing world,” he said. “One of the worrying trends is people’s inability to cross borders. It’s harder and harder for UNHCR to get access to them. The international community faces difficulties today – it is difficult to balance the sovereignty of states with the sovereignty of the human being. This is a huge challenge for us in UNHCR.”
With the changing nature of conflict, the “humanitarian space” within which his agency and its partners must work is shrinking, Guterres said. In some situations, humanitarian workers are seen as legitimate targets. Two UNHCR staff members have been killed in the past five months in Pakistan, most recently in the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar.
“Humanitarians are becoming more and more a target,” he said, and this poses a terrible dilemma – how to balance the urgent needs of innocent civilians with the responsibility to ensure the safety of those trying to help them. “But UNHCR staff never ask me how to leave,” he said. “They always ask me how to stay.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak on Thursday but was forced to cancel after fracturing her elbow in a fall Wednesday on the way to the White House.
The event in Washington kicked off several days of activities around the world designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees and others uprooted by violence. The theme of this year’s events is “Real People, Real Needs,” underscoring the fact that while the world struggles to cope with the fall-out from the global financial crisis, millions of people in poorer countries are in need of help and attention in order to survive.
Events on Saturday will include a concert at Washington’s Kennedy Centre by legendary Congolese vocalist and bandleader Samba Mapangala, a football match between refugees in Australia, a musical performance by Kurdish refugees from Iran in northern Iraq and a film festival in Japan. On Saturday, from 9am to 9pm EST in the United States (2pm to 2am GMT) a new web site, www.refugeedaylive.org, will feature live streams from Iraq, Pakistan, a refugee camp in Africa and a settlement for the displaced in Colombia.
At Thursday’s event, UNHCR awarded a refugee from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rose Mapendo, who had started her own NGO for victims of conflict, with its US Humanitarian of the Year Award.
Meanwhile, Jolie pointed out that forced displacement is a fact of life. "Whether it be from Darfur, Myanmar or the Swat Valley [in Pakistan]; or some as yet unknown crisis, mass migrations will be a feature of our future. “We must look beyond the simple numbers,” she said, “and look instead at the individual.”