On the eve of this year's World Refugee Day, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie joined the United Nations refugee chief on a visit on Sunday to Lampedusa, where they met some of the tens of thousands of people who have crossed the Mediterranean and descended on the small Italian island after fleeing unrest in North Africa.
More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have arrived by boat to Lampedusa since the beginning of this year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
They include economic migrants from Tunisia, as well as those seeking international protection, including refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and Libya, where fighting continues between Government forces and rebel groups seeking the ouster of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi.
While in Lampedusa, Ms. Jolie, who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency, and High Commissioner António Guterres had a chance to visit detention facilities to see the crowded conditions faced by new arrivals.
The actress arrived in Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat. She visited Lyster Barracks, a former Royal Air Force facility and now a detention centre for asylum-seekers, many of whom who have fled the violence in Libya. They include Somalis, Ethiopians and others from sub-Saharan Africa.
“Malta has saved many lives, but it is the daily conditions on the ground that are of most concern,” she stated while in Malta.
“We've spoken about our shared concerns about making sure asylum claims are processed as quickly as possible so no one is sitting in a prison-like situation and waiting on a decision about their status, “she added. “They are not asking to go to any particular country, they just want to find safety to work, and to have freedom.”
She also visited an open centre near Malta's main airport where vulnerable asylum-seekers are living in tents inside an old aircraft hangar while their asylum claims are assessed. The people she met there said living conditions were difficult and they were concerned about the pools of fuel on the ground and rats chewing their tents.
On Friday, Ms. Jolie traveled to a refugee camp in Turkey where she visited with Syrians who had fled the violence in their country. There are now over 9,600 Syrian refugees living in four camps managed by Turkey and the Turkish Red Crescent along the border area.
Syrian authorities have been widely criticised for their bloody repression of the protests that began earlier this year, part of a broader uprising in recent months across North Africa and the Middle East that has already toppled the long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
UNHCR is set to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June with events in locations worldwide and the launch of a new global awareness campaign entitled “One” that will be rolled out over the course of the week.
Over the next six months it will increase awareness about the forcibly displaced and stateless by telling their powerful personal stories. The campaign will carry the message that “One Refugee Without Hope is too Many.”
The Italian capital of Rome will be the focus of this year's events on Monday, with Mr. Guterres due to present UNHCR's annual statistics report on the number of people of concern to the agency. He will also preside over a special commemorative event that will be attended by President Giorgio Napolitano and six refugees, including a Polish survivor of the Holocaust in World War II.
Rome's ancient Colosseum will again be bathed in UN blue, one of many monuments around the world to be lit up to mark the occasion, including the iconic Empire State Building in New York.