Refugee Week
Refugee Week 2022 Team

How the dream of a global celebration was realised.

Refugee Week is a grand dream of a global celebration and Australia’s peak annual activity to promote greater awareness of refugees, the issues they face and the great contributions refugees are making to the Australian community.

The idea of celebrating Refugee Week was first proposed by the founding president of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), Major-General Paul Cullen, at a meeting of RCOA members in Sydney in February 1983. Major-General Cullen was also the founding president of Austcare (Australians Care for Refugees), an organisation established in 1967 to raise funds for international projects to support refugees.

The first Refugee Week was a street procession and picnic lunch held in Sydney on Sunday 9 November 1986. Organised by Austcare with the support of a small grant from the International Year of Peace Committee, the procession from Belmore Park to Sydney Domain involved around 200 people including representatives of Afghan, Eritrean, South African, Vietnamese, Chilean, El Salvadorean and other refugee communities.

In 1987, Austcare and RCOA worked to organise a series of Refugee Week events from 8-14 November 1987 in Sydney and Canberra – a forum on international refugee issues, a concert in Sydney’s Martin Place hosted by television presenter George Negus, a 20th celebration dinner for Austcare and an address at the Canberra Club by UNHCR’s regional representative Iqbal Alimohamed.

The first national celebration of Refugee Week took place from 18-24 September 1988, focusing on the theme “12 million lives on hold”. Organised by Austcare, RCOA and UNHCR with the support of national and state committees. Events included receptions in most states, two concerts and a RCOA Refugee Forum in Sydney, an inter-faith service in Melbourne, nationally televised discussions and documentaries, radio interviews and a Press Club Luncheon in Canberra with lawyer Geoffrey Robertson as guest speaker.

In 1981 Major-General Cullen won the Nansen Medal (the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award their most prestigious global award, honours individuals, groups and organizations who go above and beyond the call of duty to protect refugees, as well as displaced and stateless people.) RCOA’s executive director Luke Hardy backed this up by lobbying for an international refugee day or week at UNHCR’s 1988 annual global consultations with NGOs.

In 1989, Refugee Week in Australia shifted to June, aligning it with the only other similar international celebration, Africa Refugee Day, held on 20 June. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) organised the first Africa Refugee Day on 20 June 1975, to mark the first anniversary of the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa coming into force.

From 1997, Austcare took the decision to move Refugee Week to October, as local committees expressed their wish to hold outside events in warmer weather.

Major-General Cullen’s dream of a global annual celebration of the contribution of refugees was achieved in 2001 when UNHCR coordinated the first World Refugee Day, holding it on 20 June to align with Africa Refugee Day.

In 2007, Refugee Week shifted back to June, to the same week (Sunday to Saturday) which includes World Refugee Day, 20 June. For RCOA, this was the full achievement of the goal outlined by our founding president in 1983 – a simultaneous national and global week of activities to draw attention to the needs and aspirations of refugees and to celebrate refugees’ contributions to the communities in which they live.

Since then, Refugee Week has grown into a week in which hundreds of organisations – small and large, from local groups of volunteers to large statutory organisations, people of refugee background and allies from across the community, local councils, schools, students, faith-based organisations and business – can celebrate the week in the way they believe is most meaningful. In recent years, events have included celebrations of music and the arts, public talks and seminars on refugee issues, sporting events, rallies and much more.

Refugee Week now blends the traditional, local events which bring people together in person to meet, eat and celebrate and online events which link people across state and national borders.

2011 NSW launch of Refugee Week - Sierra Leone Cultural Performance Group
2011 NSW launch of Refugee Week – Sierra Leone Cultural Performance Group

Refugee Week link: About – Refugee Week

Refugee Week Events Calendar




Dancing at 2005 Refugee Week launch in Victoria
Dancing at 2005 Refugee Week launch in Victoria


Full article here: Refugee Week Global Celebration

Stay Connected

Connect with us for updates on how we can acheive just and fair refugee policy.