By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Angelina Jolie made a surprise appearance on Monday night at the U.N. refugee agency's ceremony to honor a Yemeni aid group credited with rescuing thousands of desperate Somali and other African refugees who arrive in southern Yemen each year.
The Society for Humanitarian Solidarity and its founder, Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy, were awarded the annual Nansen prize for their "dedicated service to providing life-saving assistance to thousands of refugees and migrants who arrive on the shores of Yemen every year."
Jolie, marking her 10th year as UNHCR goodwill ambassador during which she has made more than 40 visits to hotspots, appealed for help for people fleeing war-torn Somalia who cross the Gulf of Aden in overcrowded smugglers' boats.
"We must not forget what is happening in this part of the world. We must not forget how desperate they are when the only alternative is to risk death at sea and put their lives in the hands of ruthless smugglers," Jolie, appearing on stage wearing a long-sleeved white dress and heels, told the Geneva crowd.
"The staff of the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity often risk their own lives, pulling people from the seas. Sadly and all too often they also bury the dead. But there is no doubt there would be far fewer survivors if it were not for the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity and the team's devotion to humanity. We thank them," the American actress added.
Fighting in Somalia, compounded by a crippling drought that has sparked famine, has driven more than 18,000 Somali refugees to flee to Yemen already this year, double last year's total exodus, according to UNHCR. At least 120 have died this year.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres presented Jolie with a pin for the most long-serving staff. "She is the very best of the goodwill ambassadors that exist in the humanitarian world," he declared to applause.
The aid group's founder, Hamairy, received the award on behalf its 290 staff.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)