First ever World Refugee Day marked as UN urges to back institution of asylum

First ever World Refugee Day marked as UN urges to back institution of asylum

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Observing the first ever World Refugee Day, the United Nations today highlighted the plight of people displaced by conflict and natural disaster and called for respect for the 1951 Geneva Convention, the bedrock of the international system for protecting refugees, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers hailed the new Day and urged decision makers to do more to preserve the institution of asylum and give financial backing for refugee programmes worldwide.

"Refugees are resourceful people, survivors - but they still need considerable help from the international community," he said. "Helping them and protecting them is a moral and legal obligation, rather than an optional act of charity."

In his message, Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the "extraordinary courage and contributions" of refugees, past and present. "Sadly, in an era of unprecedented prosperity for some, refugees are finding that the welcome mat has worn thin," he said. "Nations that once opened their doors to refugees now lock their doors, while poor countries that can least afford it assume an ever greater burden."

For his part, General Assembly President Harri Holkeri of Finland stressed that it was crucial for the mental and physical capacities of refugees to be maintained and rebuilt during the waiting period for granting asylum, which can sometimes last several months or even years.

Activities to mark the day were organized in many places around the world. In New York, UN organizers planned a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty and two exhibitions at nearby Ellis Island, where about 12 million immigrants were processed between 1892 and 1954. In Geneva, where UNHCR is based, Mr. Lubbers was scheduled to meet 50 refugee women from around the world who are to take part in a three-day conference to share their experience and ideas with the agency. In Pakistan, which hosts the most refugees (2 million), some 500 people attended a commemoration of World Refugee Day in Islamabad.

The decision to observe World Refugee Day was made by the UN General Assembly in December 2000.