The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, is a United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland and is a member of the United Nations Development Group. The UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes, once in 1954 and again in 1981.
Following the demise of the League of Nations and the formation of the United Nations the international community was acutely aware of the refugee crisis following the end of World War II. In 1947, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was founded by the United Nations. The IRO was the first international agency to deal comprehensively with all aspects pertaining to refugees’ lives. Preceding this was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was established in 1944 to address the millions of people displaced across Europe as a result of World War II.
In the late 1940s, the IRO fell out of favor, but the UN agreed that a body was required to oversee global refugee issues. Despite many heated debates in the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was founded as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly by Resolution 319 (IV) of the United Nations General Assembly of December 1949. However, the organization was only intended to operate for 3 years, from January 1951, due to the disagreement of many UN member states over the implications of a permanent body.
UNHCR’s mandate was originally set out in its statute, annexed to resolution 428 (V) of the United Nations General Assembly of 1950. This mandate has been subsequently broadened by numerous resolutions of the General Assembly and its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). According to UNHCR,
[its] mandate is to provide, on a non-political and humanitarian basis, international protection to refugees and to seek permanent solutions for them.
Soon after the signing of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, it became clear that refugees were not solely restricted to Europe. In 1956, UNHCR was involved in coordinating the response to the uprising in Hungary. Just a year later, UNHCR was tasked with dealing with Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, while also responding Algerian refugees who had fled to Morocco and Tunisia in the wake of Algeria’s war for independence. The responses marked the beginning of a wider, global mandate in refugee protection and humanitarian assistance.
Decolonization in the 1960s triggered large refugee movements in Africa, creating a massive challenge that would transform UNHCR; unlike the refugee crises in Europe, there were no durable solutions in Africa and many refugees who fled one country only found instability in their new country of asylum. By the end of the decade, two-thirds of UNHCR’s budget was focused on operations in Africa and in just one decade, the organization’s focus had shifted from an almost exclusive focus on Europe.
In the 1970s, UNHCR refugee operations continued to spread around the globe, with the mass exodus of East Pakistanis to India shortly before the birth of Bangladesh. Adding to the woes in Asia was the Vietnam war, with millions fleeing the war-torn country.
The 1980s saw new challenges for UNHCR, with many member states unwilling to resettle refugees due to the sharp rise in refugee numbers over the 1970s. Often, these refugees were not fleeing wars between states, but inter-ethnic conflict in newly independent states. The targeting of civilians as military strategy added to the displacement in many nations, so even ‘minor’ conflicts could result in a large number of displaced persons. Whether in Asia, Central America or Africa, these conflicts, fueled by superpower rivalry and aggravated by socio-economic problems within the concerned countries, durable solutions continued to prove a massive challenge for the UNHCR. As a result, the UNHCR became more heavily involved with assistance programs within refugee camps, often located in hostile environments.
The end of the Cold War marked continued inter-ethnic conflict and contributed heavily to refugee flight. In addition, humanitarian intervention by multinational forces became more frequent and the media began to play a big role, particularly in the lead up to the 1999 NATO mission in Yugoslavia, while by contrast, the 1994 Rwandan Genocide had little attention. The genocide in Rwanda caused a massive refugee crisis, again highlighting the difficulties for UNHCR to uphold its mandate, and the UNHCR continued to battle against restrictive asylum policies in so called ‘rich’ nations.
UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 and succeeded the earlier United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.
UNHCR’s mandate has gradually been expanded to include protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to whom it describes as other persons “of concern,” including internally displaced persons (IDPs) who would fit the legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol, the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention, or some other treaty if they left their country, but who presently remain in their country of origin. UNHCR presently has major missions in Lebanon, South Sudan, Chad/Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as Kenya to assist and provide services to IDPs and refugees.
To achieve its mandate, the UNHCR engaged in activities both in the countries of interest and in countries with donors. For example, the UNHCR hosts expert roundtables to discuss issues of concern to the international refugee community. An example of one such roundtable was the Global Expert Roundtable on Temporary Protection, held in July 2013, who’s participants including Kathleen Newland, Director of the Migration Policy Institute, Andrew Schoenholtz, Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Alice M. Nah of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.
Most Palestinian refugees – those in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan – do not come within the responsibility of the UNHCR, but instead come under an older body, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The UNRWA has a much broader definition of “refugee” than the UNHCR, including not only refugees themselves but their descendants in perpetuity; however, it only covers refugees stemming from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Other Palestinian refugees outside of UNRWA’s area of operations do fall under UNHCR’s mandate, if they meet the UNHCR’s more limited definition of refugee.
Several new programs have recently been introduced to support and to heighten awareness of the issues faced by refugees around the world. These two new programs are a product of the benchmarks set out by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Since 1954, the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award has been annually awarded to a person or an organization in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced or stateless people.
The UNHCR itself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981.
Refugee camp in Darfur (Chad)
A helicopter arrives at a refugee facility in Macedonia with an underslung load of Aid
Trucks loaded with supplies drive across the border from Turkey into Iraq to take part in Operation Provide Comfort, a multinational effort to aid Kurdish refugees
An UNHCR-officer talks with a Marine during Exercise Eager Lion 12
Workers from the UNHCR, and CARE International gather bundles of shelters and mosquito nets in Kenya
Heavily fortified UNHCR offices in Somaliland
As of 1 January 2007, UNHCR reported a total of 21 018 589 individuals falling under its mandate.
As of April 2008
, the UNHCR employed a staff of 6,351 people in 117 countries.
The post of High Commissioner has been held by:
Prior to the establishment of UNHCR, Fridtjof Nansen was the League of Nations High Commissioner of the Nansen International Office for Refugees, from 1922.
After 10 years serving as a Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie was promoted in 2012 to Special Envoy to the High Commissioner. In this role she represents the UNHCR and High Commissioner António Guterres at the diplomatic level and works to facilitate long-term solutions for people displaced by large-scale crises, such as Afghanistan and Somalia. “This is an exceptional position reflecting an exceptional role she has played for us,” said a UNHCR spokesman.
UNHCR is also represented by a number of UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors, who at present are:
Previous ambassadors include: