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‘Respect refugee rights’ Merkel tells leaders as she accepts UN prize

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday urged leaders to refrain from sending people back to countries where they face persecution as she accepted the UN refugee agency’s prestigious Nansen Award.

Merkel, hailed for the dedication she showed while in office to protect people displaced by conflict, insisted “refugee rights must be respected”.

“No refugees should be sent back to their countries in which they face persecution,” she said during a lavish award ceremony in Geneva.

The UNHCR selection committee celebrated Merkel for her “leadership, courage and compassion” as Germany welcomed more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis sparked especially by war in Syria.

At the time, the then chancellor said the situation “put our European values to the test as seldom before. It was no more and no less than a humanitarian imperative”.

The UN refugee agency highlighted how she had called on her fellow Germans to reject divisive nationalism, urging them instead to be “compassionate and open-minded”.

As he handed her the gold Nansen medal, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Merkel had demonstrated “vision, courage and fortitude”.

– ‘Moral compass’ –

“You demonstrated a moral compass, which not only guided your work and the actions of your country, but it showed the way for so many of us in Europe and in the world,” he said.

At a time when the number of forcibly displaced people around the world has passed 100 million for the first time, Grandi told Merkel: “Your example is and must be an example to other leaders.”

As she accepted the prize in front of around 500 people, Merkel, wearing a red suit jacket, acknowledged that Germany had faced “enormous challenges” when so many refugees arrived at once.

But the woman who at the time famously told Germans: “Wir shaffen das”, or “We can do it”, said she was proud they had proved her right.

“I hope the good examples will spread and I hope in the future more people will feel obliged to provide refuge to other people in need, she said.

“No one leaves their home country casually and without careful consideration.”

While she accepted her medal, Merkel said she would prefer her prize money of $150,000 to be shared among Monday’s four regional winners, in addition to their prizes of $50,000.

The regional winners included Nagham Hasan, an Iraqi gynaecologist providing medical and psychosocial care to Yazidi girls and women who survived enslavement, rape and other violence at the hands of extremist groups in northern Iraq.

Also receiving a prize was Vincenta Gonzalez, who established a cacao cooperative in Costa Rica to support refugees, the Mbera Fire Brigade — an all-volunteer refugee firefighting group in Mauritania — and Meikswe Myanmar, a humanitarian group that helps internally displaced people in the conflict-torn country.

The annual Nansen Award was created in 1954 in honour of the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norwegian Arctic explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, to mark outstanding work on behalf of refugees.