The United Nations marked World Refugee Day today with a tribute from Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the courage and perseverance of people uprooted from their homes, and with ceremonies at focal points around the globe, from Afghanistan to Uganda.
"On this World Refugee Day, we honour the indomitable spirit and courage of the world's millions of refugees," Mr. Annan said. "Many endure enormous suffering without losing hope, and find the strength to overcome despair and start a new life against seemingly overwhelming odds."
Paying tribute as well to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Secretary-General said that over the past five decades, the office has had the duty and the privilege to help more than 50 million uprooted people rebuild their shattered lives. UNHCR staff are helping 17 million refugees and other vulnerable people in 115 countries, including many of the world's most difficult and dangerous places, he said.
"In their noble work, they, too, demonstrate courage – courage that is undoubtedly inspired by the very people they serve," he said. "As one UNHCR field officer said in the midst of a crisis, if refugees who have lost everything don't give up hope, how can we?"
Newly-confirmed High Commissioner António Guterres marked the occasion with a visit to the Ikafe settlement in northern Uganda, home to 10,000 refugees, in a region hosting a total of 176,000.
"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 the thousands of mostly Sudanese refugees, as he praised Uganda for its generosity and solidarity towards them.
He lamented a tendency in some parts of the world to confuse refugees and asylum seekers with terrorists and economic migrants, saying that they instead were the first victims of terrorism and were easily differentiated from other migrants.
The High Commissioner's three-day mission will also take him to settlements for recent arrivals from southern Sudan (fleeing cross-border attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army) and for internally displaced Ugandans.
Other Refugee Day activities 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 is being held on the Conakry Declaration, which urges African governments and the international community to promote peace and stability in the region. France organized "Hope Hurdles" a series of hurdle races run by renowned athletes and academics that highlight the difficulties and obstacles faced by refugees and asylum seekers.
In New York, the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Thoraya Ahmed Obaid celebrated 10 years of reproductive health care for refugees as shown by a recently completed study.
"We have come a long way," Ms. Obaid said. "We are seeing a growing awareness among humanitarian partners and donors that providing reproductive health care for refugees can be just as critical to their well-being as food, water and shelter."
Marking the day in Afghanistan, UNHCR representative Jacques Mouchet said Afghans had been on top of the list of refugees in the world, often remaining in exile for over 25 years. For the past three and a half years, some four million have been able to return and participate in the reconstruction of their country.
UNHCR's annual report on refugees, released this past Friday, shows that the numbers of refugees worldwide has fallen to a 25-year low, while the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and stateless people have risen.