Speech by Mrs Corien JONKER,
Chairperson of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population,
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,
On the occasion of the opening of the joint UNHCR/PACE
World Refugee Day exhibition “Refugee Children”
On 23 June at 13:30
Mrs Deputy Secretary General,
UNHCR representatives, colleagues, children,
Last Friday we celebrated the World Refugee Day to recognise the contribution of refugees throughout the world. Since this day was first inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly 8 years ago, it has become an annual commemoration day. For the fourth consecutive year, it’s theme topic is “To Feel at Home”, which aims at drawing public attention to the millions of refugees world-wide who are forced to flee their homes.
In our daily lives of comfort and security, we tend to feel totally lost when we forget our mobile phone at home for a day or we are frustrated when stuck in a traffic jam which makes us arrive at home a few minutes later than usual... But we forget that there are about 50 million people on our planet, living among us, who have been forced to flee their homes and who may never be able to go back. Or they remain in exile for long years with no hope of return. Uprooted from their homes, these people struggle to rebuild a semblance of their previous lives in other countries, to feel a part of a community and to hope for their future and the future of their children. These women, men and children share one goal: TO FEEL AT HOME. This “home” is not merely a house or shelter but acceptance in a community, a feeling of belonging and a sense of security.
Approximately half of the 50 million refugees and displaced people in the world today are children — most of them victims of war. Despite the accomplishments of the UNHCR and other international organisations over the decades, life remains desperate for other millions of the world's youngest citizens. Very often the human rights abuses that drive children into flight are only the first chapter of hardship for many refugee children. Even after travelling across an international border to seek refuge, they remain vulnerable to labour exploitation, physical abuse, denial of education, routine detention, sexual violence and exploitation, militarisation of refugee camps, and recruitment as child soldiers. For many of these children, life is a battle for survival. In the absence of parents or other guardians, too often they take to the streets in search of food, safety, and stability - a far cry from playground games.
Even in easier cases, refugee and displaced children often face significant hurdles in continuing their education. Some are turned away because they are asked to produce school records or forms of identification they no longer possess. For others, the matriculation fees and related costs of schooling prevent them from attending. Many of these children live among us, in our street, city or our common Europe which we like to regard as a haven of prosperity. Yet only too often we are ignorant of their suffering and the hurdles they have to overcome - the obstacles that our state bureaucracies have created and the negative attitudesand our welfare societies project on them. For those who suffer the most are often tacit about their hardships.
The initiative of the UNHCR office in Strasbourg to bring together drawings from faraway places such as a refugee camp in Eastern Chad or IDP reception centres in Columbia, and those made by refugee children at the non-governmental organisation CASAS or by second-generation refugee children from Bosnia here in Strasbourg, sollicits enormous praise. These drawings by children and youngsters have no geography. Each has its own story to tell: a story of witnessed violence, forced departure and loss, but also of dreams and hope. A story of tears and smiles… A story that is shared by millions in a similar situation. I feel truly humbled and in deference towards these drawings, and I am grateful that this house, which we like to refer to as the home of democracy and human rights, has opened wide its doors to listen to these stories expressed by the youngest and the most deprived…
We have among us here schoolchildren from two of the three schools in Alsace – the collèges of Hans Arp in Strasbourg-Elsau and François Truffaut in Strasbourg-Hautepierre – who have participated in this project together with the UNHCR and Council of Europe. Since 9 June they have been hosting this exhibition in their respective schools, in a very particular interactive way. Namely, not only have the very expressive drawings been exhibited in the three collèges. The exhibition has been accompanied by a stage performance by a story teller Mattieu Epp who has made the different individual stories more vivid and prompted discussions between schoolmates - some of whom are themselves migrants or even asylum seekers.
[turning to the children:] I am sure that all of you who have participated in this project now see your class and schoolmates quite differently. Both those who have been born and grown up here and those who have arrived in your class only recently… I heard the other day of an initiative or a school in Alsace that had decided to hold a week without mobile phones, computers, TV or video games. A very worthy initiative! But imagine if you were to organise with your classes a week without home? What would you do? Where would you go to eat or to sleep? Who would be the friends to help you? With your everyday best friends being in the same situation… Well, some among you may have experienced real-life situations like this; your stories and endurances are important to us, to your classmates and friends in order to help you feel well at home among themselves. Your experiences and ideas are also relevant to people like myself, a national parliamentarian from a country that hosts a vast number of refugees and asylum seekers. I therefore encourage you to have a lively dialogue at 2 o’clock with our members of the Parliamentary Assembly…
Finally, may I once again pay tribute to the UNHCR Representation in Strasbourg for their inspiring idea and the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the Council of Europe who has made it financially possible to exhibit these meaningful drawings here.