On July 22, 2016 a press conference with Jean Yves Bouchardy, UNHCR Representative in Belarus, and Melitina Staniouta, Honored Master of Sports, Belarus’ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Celebrity representative, took place at the Sputnik Belarus press center.
In his speech Jean Yves Bouchardy brought up 2 topics that are on UNHCR’s global agenda. They are worldwide #WithRefugees campaign and the first-ever Olympic Refugee Team.
He gave the most relevant statistics. There are over 65 million displaced people in the world. It is more than the population of UK, France or Italy. European countries have been facing mass inflows of migrants and refugees in 2015 and the situation remains tense in 2016. Last year, more than 4 million people arrived in Europe. At the same time, and as unexpected as it may sound, almost 600,000 refugees are of European origin – most of them from Ukraine.
Speaking about Belarus, he stated that during the last 3 years, the number of asylum applications have multiplied by 5 as a result of the crises around the world: Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries. Thus, for example, in 2014-2015, the country received some 160,000 Ukrainian nationals, and about 1,600 of them applied for asylum. It is, therefore, needed now more than ever to provide support and demonstrate solidarity with those forced to flee war or persecution.
This year, UNHCR launched a global campaign that calls the world to stand together with refugees. It aims to show public support for families forced to flee against a backdrop of increased displacement and heightened anti-refugee rhetoric. Within the campaign, people are asked to put their names under the online petition, thus expressing their agreement with 3 key messages:
• Every refugee child should get an education.
• Every refugee family should have somewhere safe to live.
• Every refugee should be able to work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.
The petition and the number of people, who signed it, will be delivered in advance of September’s historic UN High-Level Plenary of the General Assembly on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.
Proceeding to the second topic of the press conference — the Olympic team of refugees — Jean Yves Bouchardy said that it is another, and unique, way that UNHCR is taking to engage the world community in showing solidarity and support to refugees. The IOC selected 10 refugees who will compete next month in Rio de Janeiro, forming the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team. They include 2 Syrian swimmers, 2 judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and 5 middle-distance runners from South Sudan. All these people had gone through many hardships. Most of them lived in centres for displaced children or refugee camps, and that’s where sports helped them to carry on. One of them fled war in Syria and rode an inflatable dingy to get from Turkey to Greece. Another one had to jump into the water and push the stranded vessel with asylum-seekers to the Turkish coast.
Every of the 10 refugee athletes’ stories is inspiring, and he encouraged everyone to read them all.
UNHCR Representative also touched upon the topic that it is in our endeavors to ensure global public support for the refugee team, it is important for us to be assisted by such prominent athletes as Ms. Melitina Staniouta, who is present at the event. Jean Yves Bouchardy introduced her not only as a talented gymnast and an Olympic hope of Belarus, but also as a passionate advocate for the refugee cause.
Having wished Ms. Staniouta best of luck and looking forward to seeing her inspire many more people in her new role, Jean Yves Bouchardy gave the floor to the gymnast.
Melitina Staniouta in her speech noted that the number of displaced people in the world reached the unprecedented 65 million, and 34 thousand people are forced to flee their homes every day. And contrary to what we living in Europe believe, 90% of refugees are not in Europe, they are seeking asylum in the countries close to conflict zones.
She noted that the way she helps is by being involved in UNHCR’s activities, and it’s been a great journey so far.
Melitina Staniouta said that among her brightest memories is meeting refugee kids at the Centre for Children and Youth Evrika in Minsk. Together with UNHCR, Evrika Centre aims to facilitate integration of refugee children into Belarusian society through activities for them to master the language, get familiar with Belarusian culture and grow up to be educated and creative individuals. In Evrika she held a gymnastics class there, but mostly they were just having fun because precisely like all other kids, refugee children are curious and open-hearted, and they want to make friends.
She also participated in UNHCR’s mission to Gomel where she took part in the discussion of refugee and migration issues at Frantsysk Skorina University. It was inspiring to see students who are willing to learn more about the struggles of the displaced.
The sportswoman generally believes that there are many things that should be taught in school about daily global events – that is why within her cooperation with UNHCR and RIPE (Republican Institute of Professional Education) she devotes great efforts to promoting the message of empathy towards refugees among vocational schools students. One of such activities, for example, is filming a video address that will be screened at “tolerance lessons” later this year – RIPE’s initiative to educate young people about refugees.
Melitina Staniouta stressed that very often unfortunately, we see intolerance and fear of refugees. But if you think about it, the strength lies in embracing our differences and showing support. Especially now, looking towards the Olympics, she asked everyone to cheer not only for Belarusian national team which she is privileged and exited to be a part of, but also for the team of refugees. With the passion for sport running as deep as hers, they are also champions of resilience, strength and courage to pursue their dreams, even having to train outside their home countries torn by war. These are the athletes with broken lives but unbroken spirit, and she is truly honoured to witness the first ever Olympics recognizing refugees’ rights to be represented and compete.
As a matter of fact, each and every one of you can manifest their support by signing the petition and joining UNHCR’s global campaign #WithRefugees. The petition is on withrefugees.org. Ms Staniouta encouraged everyone to stand with me and thousands of people all over the world who support refugees.
The latest UNHCR activity she took part in was filming of a video to support the #WithRefugees campaign and encourage people to join by signing the petition.
Completing her speech Ms Staniouta expressed her admiration of UNHCR activities, what it has done and continues doing, and she is very grateful that UNHCR allows her to be a part of it.
After the introductory speeches of Mr Bouchardy and Ms Staniouta, journalists were given an opportunity to ask the questions of concern.
Great attention was paid to the Olympic Refugee team and its possible success. UNHCR Representative was asked the question about the team composition, selection procedure and reasons which forced them to flee from their countries. Mr Bouchardy shared with journalists that he was mostly amazed by the story of a Syrian swimmer. Together with her sister they were fleeing from Syria to Turkey by boat, however, the vessel stopped amidst the Mediterranean. The sportsmen together with her sister, also a swimmer, were pushing the boat towards the shores.
The selection of sportsmen is conducted by experts in refugee camps, members of the team were selected among persons who had shown the most prominent sporting results. There is also an interesting fact that representatives of the Refugee Olympic Team are not necessarily professional sportsmen. Jean Yves Bouchardy wished the team members to succeed at the Olympiad.
Despite the fact the Olympic Games 2016 haven’t started yet, mass media representatives were interested to know whether it is possible to see the repeated participation of the Refugee Team at the Olympiad in South Korea. Answering to this question UNHCR Representative noted that this experience is important for the organization as it raises the acknowledgement of the organization’s activities and, possibly, would be repeated during 2020 Olympic Games.
On the background of the doping scandal many questions touched upon this topic. Mr Bouchardy expressed hope that members of the Refugee Olympic Team will not appear doping positive while being tested. Melitina Staniouta, answering to the question on the purity of doping samples of the Belarusian team in rhythmic gymnastics, said that coordination sports have also been regarded as the “purest” ones in this respect. Belarusian team is actively training, and that’s why it is achieving high results not resorting to the use of any prohibited drugs.
It is possible to watch the video from the press conference as well as to find out the information on Sputnik Belarus web-site.