Speech by the Representative of UNHCR, Cristina Planas, on the occasion of 2008 World Refugee Day.

Opening of the photographic exhibition “Protection: what refugees need”

President of the House, Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for being here today.

The theme of this year’s WORLD REFUGEE DAY is “protection”. Protection is what the refugees need, is the essence of the UN Refugee Agency and the obligation of states signatories of the 1951 refugee convention (such as Cyprus). The logo of UNHCR symbolizes protection. [You will be able to collect from the information desk a brief on how UNHCR Cyprus exercises its mandate]. The protecting hands encompass shelter, food, clothing, medical care [–physical and mental-], education, birth certificates, identification documents, passports, family unity, dignity. This explains why you see in this exhibition so many protecting hands. You can see in this hall, like in the real world, the transition FROM war/destruction and persecution in the country of origin TO protection in the country of asylum. Persecution is however more difficult to portray: how can u exhibit photos of inhuman and degrading treatment administered by the structures of a despotic dictator? photos of authorities avoiding that a girl undergoes female genital mutilation? photos of the consequences of a father who cannot feed his family because the authorities have confiscated his land on the grounds that they dislike his ethnic background? Both destruction and persecution are the root causes of displacement; the crude reality of intense conflict in the country of origin.

The House of Parliament is the most appropriate venue to display this transition FROM persecution TO protection and therefore this exhibition here today. It is in this House where not only the 2000 Cyprus refugee law, and its subsequent amendments, were passed, but also where

-the obligation to INTEGRATE refugees was spelled out in section 21 of the refugee law after the July 2007 transposition of the European Union Qualifications Directive. This INTEGRATION as indispensable component of protection, is not only beneficial for the refugees but also for the country as a whole. A policy on integration and its immediate implementation, following the above instructions from the Parliament, cannot wait for much longer.

-it is also in this house where the material reception conditions for a/s were defined in December 2005, transposing the European Union directive on the minimum standards of the reception conditions, as including housing, food and clothing, as well as a daily expenses allowance. Full implementation is due.

This is the reason why we are all here today. The various Committees in Parliament, more frequently but not only, the Internal Affairs Committee, displayed its sense of mission being open to the comments and discussions to achieve the conformity of the drafts with international and European standards, calling upon not only the UN Refugee Agency but all actors, including the civil society/, groups who have a say in asylum matters. Our acknowledgment to them.

The role of the Parliament is always on going, in particular as regards the pending transposition of the European Union procedures directive once they receive the draft from the executive power, a draft that we expect to have a social face.

I want to speak as well about the role of symbols. Symbols have had a presence since the beginning of the humanity. We find symbols painted in caves and tombs. We have universal symbols to indicate victory and failure. Tourist industry has logos to identify countries. We aim at everybody understanding the complex legal concept of PROTECTION through the very simple symbol of the protecting hands. UNHCR´s protecting hands contain every component of refugee protection, including a house. UNHCR cannot other than to encourage therefore that the social inclusion plans in the form of subsidies for low income families are extended to refugees who find themselves in the same circumstances. Because if the needs are the same, the treatment cannot be different once a refugee has spent a number of years in the country long enough to make return unrealistic even in the event that the circumstances in their country of origin would drastically improve.

Through protection the refugees have a second chance to live in dignity, but this depends on the creation of a conducive environment. This would happen NOT ONLY through policies of the Government, laws from the Parliament, and the structures and systems put in place, but also through the ATTITUDE OF THE POPULATION in the country of asylum. Welcoming and understanding can only take place through knowledge of the basic concepts, which will contribute to dispel confusion, prejudices, and misinformation. It will assist to welcome refugees in our societies to remember that they left their countries not in search for better life, but to save their lives.

The aim of the exhibition that the President of the House is launching today is to transmit to the widest possible Cypriot audience

how refugees differ from other population movements, including irregular migrants;
what are the obligations of the Governments (including Cyprus) to that end;
where these obligations are coming from;
what UNHCR does in respect of protection;

To this end all the photographs have a message to be read.

As you will see the photos portray a diversity of people: the President of the Republic, the President of the House of Representatives, the Ombudsman, the Mayor of Nicosia, a parliamentarian, as well as others – the idea being to express their commitment and support towards the world’s most vulnerable. This support does not come only from decision makers, but also from people from all sectors of society: artists, intellectuals and people from commercial companies. This is not coincidental. It meant to show that everyone on its own way can offer protection to refugees:

it can be from being vocal in support of refugees,
explaining to others the causes of forced displacement,
personally teach the language,
grant a job in a big corporation,
or giving a welcoming smile

– each actor has a complementary role to play in the protection of refugees.

This is simply the presentation of the protection campaign to you/ and its launching. We intend to take many more photos and to show this exhibition in all districts in simultaneous locations. We intend to bring the exhibition to the buildings were people tend to go for their own needs to ensure that it is widely seen in order to achieve maximum impact until everybody recognizes this symbol IN THE SAME WAY as the logos of the products that we consume every day.

It is in this spirit that this project has been staged; that a group of Cypriot photographers have/, through their participation WITHOUT remuneration, made their indirect statement that they are socially oriented, global in scope, that they want inclusion and not exclusion. Many more Cypriot photographers have expressed their willingness to participate in the phases to come until World Refugee Day 2009.

Among 32 million uprooted worldwide, Cyprus hosts 1,000 refugees and some 11,000 asylum seekers whose applications are waiting to be processed by the Government. We aware that the majority of the world’s refugees are found in developing countries. Some of the largest migratory movements take place within the South.

You will also find photos of internally displaced Cypriots as part of this exhibition. UNHCR had projects to contribute to the wellbeing of them since 1974 until 1998. The protection needs of displaced inside their own country are often identical to the needs of the people who were forced to seek refuge outside their own country; the need to have access to basic human rights from which they have been deprived of (food, shelter, clothing, medical treatment, education)/, the grief and sorrow of being unable to return home, are identical characteristics of internally displaced and refugees. This is the reason why UNHCR believes that the Cyprus society can particularly embrace refugees with a protecting hand.
Cypriots know how it feels to lose everything and having to start from the beginning.

Thanks to all those who have made possible this project:
-the Parliament,
-the group of committed Cypriot photographers dynamically taking these photos out of their own believes;
-our group of interns who / without being paid / work as intensively and as motivated as if they were paid millions per day – please invite your friends, Cypriot lawyers in particular, but not only, to volunteer their services with us----
-thank s to all the donors listed in the standing posters at the entrance of the Parliament and next to me.

Allow me not to say any more and simply symbol you in silence.

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