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The Nansen Refugee Award 2008
The Nansen Refugee Award, is given out yearly to a person or group for outstanding services in supporting refugee causes by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
This year"s winner is Katrine Camilleri, a 37-year-old lawyer from Malta who has demonstrated her dedication to helping refugees arriving in Malta, not only in a decade of work with the Jesuit Refugee Service but in her determination to continue in the face of threats that included an arson attack on her car and home.
"The committee has chosen Dr. Katrine Camilleri of Malta in recognition of her exceptional dedication to the refugee cause and her outstanding contribution through Jesuit Refugee Service in the protection and assistance to refugees and displaced persons," said the official selection decision.
"The committee notes with appreciation the tireless efforts of Dr. Camilleri to lobby and advocate for refugees and is impressed by the political courage she has shown in dealing with the refugee situation in Malta. By rewarding Dr. Camilleri for her civic courage and for the inspiring example set by her actions, the Nansen Refugee Award Committee would like to honour all individuals who are working to improve the well-being of refugees."
The annual Nansen Refugee Award is given to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees.
"Katrine Camilleri has worked courageously to protect refugees and asylum seekers," said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Dr. Camilleri and JRS are key partners in helping UNHCR to fulfil its goal of assisting governments to identify refugees caught in migratory movements and responding to their needs."
Born in 1970 on the Mediterranean island of Malta, Camilleri came into contact with refugees when she began working in a small law firm after graduating from the University of Malta in 1994. After helping to prevent the deportation of a Libyan asylum seeker who risked persecution if returned home, her interest grew and in 1997 she started to work with the Malta office of JRS.
First as a volunteer, then part-time and eventually full-time, Camilleri helped to expand JRS"s assistance. In 2000, she was referred the case of an asylum seeker in detention and others soon came forward to ask for legal assistance. JRS became the first organization to offer a professional legal service on a regular basis to detainees.
In 2002, the number of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in Malta by boat increased sharply – a problem faced by European countries around the Mediterranean. Believing asylum seekers in detention to be in the greatest need, JRS shifted its focus increasingly to the detention centres. Camilleri, a mother of two, devoted her energy to expanding JRS services, securing funding to employ more professional staff and to set up projects offering social work, health and education services to all refugees, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
Camilleri leads the JRS Malta legal team of two lawyers and two case workers, which apart from handling asylum claims, challenges detention in individual cases and monitors the treatment of those in the centres. Conscious of the need for more lawyers trained in refugee law, Camilleri helped set up a study unit for law students at the University of Malta in which students take cases, thus coming into contact with asylum seekers.
With the rise in the number of asylum seekers reaching Malta, irregular migration has become a high profile political issue. JRS raises public awareness about refugees, the right to asylum and intercultural issues. However, there has been a violent backlash from some people, which has shocked Maltese and drawn condemnation from the government.
Over the last year, JRS and Camilleri have faced a series of attacks. Nine vehicles belonging to the Jesuits were burned in two separate attacks. And this April, arsonists set fire to both Camilleri"s car and her front door, terrifying her family trapped inside.
The incident, she said, has shattered her own children"s sense of invulnerability, but has not altered her desire to help asylum seekers risking their lives in flimsy boats to reach safety.
"I"m always impressed by how much hope they have and how much capacity in a sense, not only to keep hoping against hope, but to really make things happen," Camilleri told UNHCR.
The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the celebrated Norwegian polar explorer and the world"s first international refugee official. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins Sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Graça Machel.
Last year, the award went to Japanese optometrist Dr. Akio Kanai of Fuji Optical, who over more than two decades has improved the quality of life of over 100,000 uprooted people around the world by testing their eyes and providing them with spectacles.
by António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

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