UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie presented the founder of Yemen’s Society for Humanitarian Solidarity with the 2011 Nansen Refugee Award at a ceremony on Monday evening in Geneva. The prize – the refugee world’s highest honour – was awarded to the founder and the 290 staff of SHS, a non-governmental organization, for their life-saving work in helping thousands of refugees and migrants who arrive on Yemen’s shores each year.

Guterres spoke of the commitment of SHS staff, who comb the Yemeni coastline year round, pulling people from the sea and helping them find safety and assistance. “I do think they deserve the recognition of the international community,” he said.

Jolie added her own praise, highlighting the courage of individual SHS staff: ”The staff of SHS often risk their own lives to save others – rescuing people from the waves in rough seas and working in extremely volatile security conditions. Their devotion to saving refugee lives is extraordinary.”

UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) have partnered to make the Nansen Award Ceremony a televised event to raise global awareness of the challenges refugees face. NRC Secretary-General Elisabeth Rasmusson said, “The refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa is one of the largest in the world, and the situation is further worsened by famine. NRC pays tribute to SHS for its courageous efforts in easing the plight of Somali refugees”.

The ceremony was hosted by former politician and ex-BBC reporter Martin Bell. It also featured music by Colombian rock star, Juanes, popular Norwegian singer, Sivert Høyem, and the Somali sister band “Sweet Rush”.

The founder of SHS, Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy, accepted the prize on behalf of his organization, “We never expected to be awarded with such a prestigious prize, and we appreciate this recognition of our hard work. This motivates us to increase our efforts towards helping those in need wherever they are.” Al-Hamairy also appealed to the international community to move quickly in addressing the conflict in Somalia and restoring security and stability to ensure that the people can enjoy life and feel reassured like people in other nations around the world; so they do not feel compelled to take such great risks on the high seas.” More than 120 people have lost their lives trying to reach Yemen so far this year.

SHS was founded in 1995 by Al-Hamairy as increasing numbers of Somali refugees fled war-torn Somalia by boat across the Gulf of Aden. Recognizing there were virtually no local resources to come to the rescue, the founder says he was motivated to form a humanitarian aid group to assist both refugees and the local community. UNHCR has been supporting the work of SHS since 1999.

The continuing violence in Somalia, compounded by a crippling drought, has driven over 18,000 Somali refugees to flee to Yemen so far this year. That is more than double the number from last year, according to UNHCR statistics.

The Nansen Refugee Award ceremony also paid tribute to Jolie’s 10 years as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and her strong advocacy for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people around the world.

“Now I know she is the very best of the Goodwill Ambassadors in the humanitarian world,” High Commissioner Guterres said.

Jolie was named UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador on 23 August, 2001 and has since conducted more than 40 field visits to some of the most remote refugee-hosting regions of the world.

Guterres presented her with a special gold pin, much like those reserved for longstanding UNHCR staff.

On receiving the pin, the Oscar-winning actress said: “I’m so grateful to the many refugee families that I have had the honour and privilege to spend the last years with. From them I’ve learned so much; I’ve learned to become a better person, a better mother. They’ve inspired me by showing me every day the unbreakable strength of the human spirit.”

“It is an honour to work on behalf of refugees and I look forward to the next ten years” said Jolie

2011 is the 150th anniversary of Nansen’s birth and a special year for the award. The Nansen Refugee Award was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and politician as well as the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, appointed in 1921. The prize is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 prize donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway. The winner can donate the funds to a cause of their choice related to helping forcibly displaced people.