For information only - not an official document.
15 December 2000
Secretary-General, at Opening of Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition,
Commends Work of Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees

 NEW YORK, 14 December (UN Headquarters) -- This is the text of a statement today by Secretary-General Kofi Annan (delivered on his behalf by his Chef de Cabinet, S. Igbal Riza) at the opening in New York of the exhibition, “Respect Refugees”, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):

I regret that I could not join you in person for this tribute to the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.  But I am very much with you in spirit.  Today, I convey my warmest wishes both on behalf of the entire United Nations family, and as an old UNHCR hand myself.  During my own years with the UNHCR, early on in my career, I gained invaluable experience and insights -- for which I remain grateful to this day.

Since then, much has happened to the world, and to the mission of the UNHCR.  The Office has faced new challenges, and it has risen to them admirably -- for the past decade under the leadership of Mrs. Ogata, for whom I express my admiration today on the eve of her retirement.  But one sombre fact remains a constant: behind every refugee statistic we read about, there is a human being who relies on the UNHCR for protection and assistance.  Without the men and women of the UNHCR, tens of millions of refugees and displaced people worldwide would be far worse off -– and any of us could have been one of them.  

Today, we are here to pay tribute not only to the work of the UNHCR, but to all the people it has helped over the past 50 years.  This exhibition tells us that the story of every refugee has many sides, and that not all of them are tragic.  It reminds us not only about the hardships refugees survive, but just as important, about the contributions they can bring to the communities where they seek refuge.  It shows us that wherever they come from, most refugees endure adversity, but still harbour hope that they will again be able to build full and successful lives. 

Some of these success stories are about people who are well known, and a few of them I am proud to call my friends -- like Elie Wiesel and Madeleine Albright. Others are about people who have become everyday role models for their adoptive communities.  All of them are stories about courage.  About the bravery it takes to overcome ill fortune, and, when old homes cannot be recovered, build new lives in new worlds.

In that sense, this exhibition is not only a tribute to the millions whom fate has made refugees, but an education for the rest of us.  It reminds us that these are people who remain human beings, with all the rights and qualities that that implies.  Their condition is something we should not merely tolerate, but strive to correct.  They are individuals whom we should not only see, but respect.

I wish to close with a few lines on exile from Euripides’ Medea:

“O country and home
Never, never may I be without you,
Living the hopeless life,
Hard to endure, painful ….
There is no sorrow above
The loss of a native land.”

Thank you very much.

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