World Refugee Day Remarks

Written by June 20, 2014 UNHCR 1 Comment

We announce today a startling and deeply disturbing fact: that there are now more than 50 million persons who have been forced from their homes because of conflict. On every continent, in every region, human beings flee violence and seek the safety that international law and international institutions help provide.

I mention law here not simply because I am trained as a lawyer. But because it reminds us, that while UNHCR and our partners are providing shelter and food and medical care and other forms of assistance, at the core of our work is our protection function. Of course, saving lives must be our highest priority, but once those force to flee have received emergency care we must immediately turn our attention to human rights.

The protection of refugees and other persons forced from their homes is not an act of charity; it is not an act of noblesse oblige; and it is more than a moral obligation that the fortunate owe the less fortunate.

It is a matter of rights.

  • Persons forced to flee have a right to seek and receive asylum.
  • They have a right not be “pushed back” at sea or arbitrarily detained upon arrival.
  • They have rights, under the Refugee Convention, to freedom of movement and to work within countries in which they have been recognized as refugees.
  • Persons forced to flee have a right not to be discriminated against because of their race or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
  • Women forced from their homes have a right not to be forced into survival sex.
  • Children forced to flee because of conflict have a right not to be forced to serve as child soldiers.

As persons forced from their homes have rights, so too the international community has responsibilities.

  • Nations must share the burden imposed on countries that have opened their borders to those forced to flee.
  • They are responsible for the humane treatment of asylum-seekers, and the development of fair and efficient asylum systems.
  • And the international community has a responsibility to provide solutions to refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons—who sometimes remain in uncertain legal status for decades.

These rights and responsibilities belong to all of us; they are affirmed collectively to provide for our protection and to remind us of our duties.

We recognize each World Refugee Day that we all stand in the shoes of those forced to flee; we are in a refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; we are crossing into Uganda fleeing violence in South Sudan; we have moved with our children to be safe from the new fighting in Iraq; we live in impoverished and distressed Rohingya settlements in Myanmar and Bangladesh; we watch our children and grandchildren grow up as refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya and the Mae La camp in Thailand and the Sheder camp in Ethiopia; we are fearful that our daughters will be attacked and raped in the eastern DRC or kidnapped in Nigeria; we are on a leaky ship in the Adaman Sea, navigating the Windward Passage or nearing the island of Lampedusa; we know the children of our neighbors who have been smuggled and trafficked into Sudan and over the southwest border of the United States.

This World Refugee Day takes special note of refugee families. But we see ourselves in the faces and lives, the despair and resourcefulness, of displaced persons everywhere because we are part of the human family.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Geneva, June 20, 2014