World Refugee Day 2009 - Speech delivered by the Representative of the UNHCR Representation in Cyprus, Cristina Planas

At the opening of the UNHCR open air photographic exhibition “Refugees: real people, real needs” on 20 june 2009 at the gardens of the Nicosia Town Hall.

Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to this year’s annual celebration of the World Refugee Day. This is a day to remember the more than 42 million uprooted persons around the world because of persecution or conflict. They are living as refugees (10.5 million), as displaced in their own country (26 million), or as asylum seekers - some times for decades.

You see some of them bravely pictured by exceptional photographers in the collection exhibited on Ledra Street. These victims of persecution are not only in far away countries. Some of them arrived in Cyprus and are living among us. They are next to us waiting for a traffic light to turn green at the same time that we are; paying for their food in the supermarket in the cashier before or after us, looking for a home to rent like some of us. They are your age, my age. But for many are invisible, ignored; others look down to them; some reject them. Imagine for two hundred meters while driving that you are one of them, one of those in the photos. What would you wish for? We are freer if we have the world in our minds. Most often the only thing that distinguishes them is that by pure fate, nothing to our merit, we were lucky and they were not. We live in countries where we enjoy freedom and they lived in countries of repression. That is the only difference, the rest is the same. Therefore they have the same needs. Need to communicate to others, need to receive a smile, need to get an employment, need to be healthy, need to eat with nutritional value, need to relax and enjoy. In this case why most often people speak about “them” and “us”? Why the fear to the “other”? The fear to the “different”? Why people don’t speak about “we”, “we all together”? Why we limit our selves to think “Sorry, better luck next time!”.

UNHCR´s goal is to ensure that the needs of refugees are not forgotten or put to the bottom of the list of priorities. Refugees are not just faceless statistics; refugees are individuals like you and me. There are 1300 refugees in Cyprus. Some of them graduated at university, at technical schools, or secondary schools in their countries of origin before they had to run away. And yet some are now underemployed, even some are unemployed. Facilitation of access to empower them has not taken place; some are lost in the new context and new country. Yet some companies are looking for labor force -let us know, let the labor offices know and hire them!

I would like to thank the companies and individuals that free of charge have volunteered to assist refugees in labor market orientation sessions, curriculum vitae drafting and interview practice, to readjust and adapt their experience. Nowadays there are multiple options to facilitate this access thanks to the various funds for projects from the European Union. It is only necessary that the various institutions coordinate and coordinate efficiently with the most ambitious goals in mind for all to benefit without segregating. Adult refugees need to learn your language but at present they don’t find how, where and when. Please create opportunities for them!

A word of thanks to the Minister of Interior who in a determined fashion put in place the measures to effectively deal with the high amount of asylum requests pending which was the asylum problem number one in Cyprus. A problem for the persons suffering persecution, and a problem for the public budget which in a way or another ended up requiring an investment. Now is the moment to concentrate on integration of the 1300 refugees, it can’t be difficult to fully welcome and integrate 1300. At this moment our public appeal is for the refugees with low income to be considered by the social inclusion plan to have access, as the poor Cypriot have, to housing. There is no logic to exclude them from these schemes; there is no logic for not helping them to stop being poor.

With the amount of abuses and conflicts around the world (recently in Sri Lanka, now in Pakistan), the budgetary needs of UNHCR are huge. If your cash allows you, help UNHCR, contribute the value of a blanket per month, or the value of a plastic container for clean water in a refugee camp each month, the value of a tent to protect refugees from the rain. A small contribution from each makes a big one.

Poor countries, which can least afford, are paying the heaviest price hosting refugees. Despite alarmist reports of “floods” of asylum seekers in some industrialized countries, the reality is that 80% of the world’s refugees are in developing nations (Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Chad, Tanzania, Kenya). More international help is needed.

UNHCR´s ability to provide help to those who need it most is also being severely tested by the “shrinkage” of the humanitarian space in which we work. The nature of conflict has changed, with a multiplicity of armed groups, some of whom view humanitarians as “legitimate” targets. Two UNHCR staff members have been killed in Pakistan in the past months; one of them in the June 9 bombing of a hotel in Peshawar. The distinctions between the humanitarian and the military risk are being blurred. Since 1950 the UN Refugee Agency has helped tens of millions of people. Today, unfortunately, refugees continue to exist.

The photos in the collection have not been selected for their beauty. The beauty will come from the viewers who will like to understand them, to feel closer to them, to do something to contribute to alleviate the burden of their traumatic past and the need to start all over again; the beauty will come from the power of transformation. The pictures are not to be loved, but to be thought, to be discussed, to invite to review some attitudes. Photos reactivate ideas; listen to your heart and your brain; compare their lives and your lives.

Goethe once wrote about Beethoven´s Fifth Symphony: “If all the musicians in the world played this piece simultaneously, the planet would go off its axis”. The same can be said about any other positive enthusiastic determination of people. The governments are responsible to provide protection, but the individuals can complement to make an
earth- braking difference in many ways.


Many thanks to the main sponsor of this exhibition, the Ministry of Education. Thanks also to contributors: Ministry of Interior, the Electricity Authority of Cyprus, the British Council. Thanks to DE LE MA advertising company, Politis, Cyprus Mail, and CyBC as media sponsors. Our gratitude to Starbuks and Vienna bakeries for their contribution to the reception right now. Very importantly, our gratitude for the understanding and uninterrupted empathy of the Nicosia Municipality, in particular to Ms. Eleni Mavrou, Major of Nicosia, to whom I pass the floor right now.

Many thanks to each one of you for being here today.

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