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UN Says World Should Not Forget Refugees Amid Economic Crisis

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (right) inspects a camp for displaced Afghans in Kabul last November.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (right) inspects a camp for displaced Afghans in Kabul last November.

(RFE/RL) -- Antonio Guterres, the UN's high commissioner for refugees, is urging the international community not to slacken aid donations for refugees and internally displaced people amid the current global economic crisis.

Guterres made the plea ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20 -- a day aimed at raising global awareness of the plight of people who have been forced from their homes by war or political persecution.

"On this World Refugee Day, let us remember that the people cared for by the UN refugee agency and our partners are among the most vulnerable on Earth," Guterres said. "Each and every one of them has a very human story to tell. Refugees are not faceless statistics. They are real people, like you and me, who through no fault of their own have lost everything."

Guterres says the latest study by the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, shows 42 million people around the world are living away from their homes after being forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution. That includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their countries, as well as 26 million people who have been displaced within the borders of their own countries.

"In these difficult times, those of us who work with refugees are struggling more than ever to meet even their most basic needs," he said. "The sobering reality is that there are substantial gaps in our ability to provide them with essentials such as shelter, health, education, nutrition, sanitation, and protection from violence and abuse. As the UN high commissioner for refugees, it is my job to do everything I can to ensure that those basic needs are met. But a recent UNHCR survey shows that a startling number remain unmet."

'Heart-Breaking Decisions'

Guterres also says there has been a sharp slowdown in the repatriation of refugees, and that prolonged conflicts -- like fighting in Pakistan's Swat Valley -- are resulting in more long-term displacements.

Some vehicles came during the night. We didn't know if these were government forces or the Taliban. And they slaughtered a few people.
"With adequate resources, many of these ills can be eliminated or minimized," he said. "But without that support, we are forced daily to make heart-breaking decisions that directly affect the lives and well-being of the millions of uprooted families we are charged with protecting. Helping them to rebuild their lives and their communities benefits us all."

Indeed, more than 2 million Pakistanis have been driven from their homes in and around the Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan during the past year. UN officials say it is the "most challenging humanitarian crisis" of the past decade.

Bakht Kamal, one of tens of thousands of people crammed into a camp near Peshawar for displaced Swat Valley residents, says it was the violence in his neighborhood that led to his decision to flee.

"There was mortar shelling in our neighborhood from the military and some children were killed in that attack. Then some vehicles came during the night," Kamal said. "We didn't know if these were government forces or the Taliban. And they slaughtered a few people."

'We Came On Foot'

Bakht Sera, a displaced woman from the Swat Valley, says it was very difficult for her family to reach the relative safety of the squalid camp near Peshawar. She says that is because roads from the area become flooded with traffic as soon as daytime comes and the curfew is lifted in the conflict zone.

"There were no vehicles available and the situation was extremely bad. People were fleeing. Many came on foot. Many could not afford to take a car," she said. "We could not afford transport and we came on foot."

The UNHCR also is using celebrities that have been named as its "goodwill ambassadors" to get its message out about the needs of refugees and internally displaced people. Two such celebrities are the Hollywood couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who announced this week that they are donating $1 million to help Pakistanis who have been displaced by the fighting in the Swat Valley.

Jolie told potential donors in Washington this week that the world can no longer view refugees as an economic or political burden. She says they are "survivors" who can help their communities and the countries that shelter them.

"The refugees I have met and spent time with have profoundly changed my life. The 8-year old girl who saved her brother taught me what it is to be brave. The pregnant woman in Pakistan taught me what it is to be a mother. And the paralyzed boy who had been shot in the back, with his big smile, showed me the strength of an unbreakable spirit," Jolie said. "So today on World Refugee Day, I thank them for letting me into their lives."

Jolie has visited UN relief operations in Pakistan three times since she became a "goodwill ambassador" for the UNHCR in 2001.