‘We cannot let innocent people be buried by indifference’: UN Chief on refugees

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A woman hugs a baby wrapped in an emergency blanket as refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. (AFP)

NEW YORK (United Nations) – Just days before the 19 September Summit for Refugees and Migrants, at a ceremony in New York today, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accepted a 1.3 million signature-strong petition that expressed solidarity with millions of refugees. 

“We cannot let innocent people be buried by indifference,” Mr. Ban said. “We cannot let heartlessness expose so many children to deadly risk […] We stand with refugees. The summit next week is for them,” he said.

The #WithRefugees petition was launched on 19 June, World Refugee Day by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Secretary-General underscored that the refugees are merely asking for what all people deserve, namely a home, a school and a chance.

He thanked and credited the UN for offering global solidarity when he, himself, was a six-year old refugee, saying without which “I would not be standing here.”

The UN chief said the upcoming Summit is a foundation to build a stronger global response and that the Organization was mobilizing all partners.

“Today,” he concluded, “we declare our commitment to share the responsibility. That will benefit everyone. Let us help refugees and create a better future for all.”

The petition calls on representatives of the 193 governments attending the Summit to make sure all refugee children can go to school; that all refugees have a safe place to live and that all refugees can work and contribute to their local community.

An extraordinary outpouring of solidarity

“We are in a period of deepening conflict and turmoil in the world, which is causing many more people to flee their homes than before,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, said. “It affects and involves us all, and what it needs is understanding, compassion and political will to come together and find real answers for the refugee plight.”

The UN refugee agency chief explained that millions of people were newly displaced in 2015, causing global refugee and internal displacement totals to skyrocket. While countries of the developing world were most affected, Europe too witnessed dramatic scenes, as hundreds of thousands of people crossed the Mediterranean in search of safety and refuge. Thousands died along the way. 

“This has become a defining challenge of our times,” he said. 

Mr. Grandi emphasized that at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, many ordinary people had come forward to help. “There was an extraordinary outpouring of empathy and solidarity, as ordinary people and communities opened their homes and their hearts to refugees, and some countries have welcomed new arrivals even while already hosting large numbers of refugees.” 

The handover featured a live performance by award-winning slam poet Emi Mahmoud on her ode to drowned Syrian refugee toddler Alan Kurdi. In it she vividly described what happened to the three-year-old boy and so many others, saying “It makes the Earth a cemetery.” .

After making history at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Olympic Refugee Team swimmer Yusra Mardini from Syria and runner Yiech Pur Biel from South Sudan attended the event. United States-resettled refugees also threw their support behind the petition, speaking on the appeal’s main asks.

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