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17.6.2016

UNHCR: The UN’s Refugee Agency

There are about 60 million people in the world who are fleeing from war, persecution and poverty. A large part of the world's refugee population is under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), founded in 1951.

A Somali refugee stands inside a UNHCR tent with her baby in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe/ Flickr) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de


While forced migration has been a feature of international society for a long time, international institutional concern for refugees only began in 1921 when the League of Nations appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, to respond to the outflow of Russian refugees after World War I. Over the next twenty years, the scope and functions of assistance programs for refugees in Europe gradually expanded, as efforts were made to regularize the status and control of stateless and denationalized peoples. During and after World War II, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency and the International Refugee Organization, each with a radically different mandate, further developed the international organization framework for refugees. While both organizations repatriated and resettled large numbers of refugees, there remained several hundred thousand displaced persons in camps across Europe at the end of the 1940s. Moreover, with the onset of the Cold War, new groups of refugees from Eastern Europe fled westward. At the same time, massive new refugee crises occurred in India, Korea, China and Palestine. Consequently states felt there was an urgent need to create a new UN refugee agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since 1951, an international refugee regime composed of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a network of other international agencies, national governments, and voluntary or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have developed a response strategy to deal with the global problem of refugees. Although unevenly applied, international laws, including the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and a number of regional conventions that designate refugees as a unique category of human rights victims, who should be accorded special protection and benefits have been signed, ratified and in force for over six and a half decades. In addition to its work for refugees, since 2005 UNHCR has been the lead agency for protection, shelter and camp maintenance for conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world.

The UNHCR’s Statute sets out a clear mandate, defining the Office’s core mandate as focusing on two principal areas: to work with states to ensure refugees’ access to protection from persecution and to ensure that refugees have access to a range of durable solutions. The Statute outlines three possible durable solutions for refugees: (1) voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin; (2) local integration in a new host country; or (3) resettlement to a third country.

UNHCR has become the principal organization within the global refugee regime. The centerpiece of the regime is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which provides a definition of who qualifies for refugee status and sets out the rights to which all recognized refugees are entitled. The 1951 Convention also explicitly identifies UNHCR as having supervisory responsibility for its implementation. The Office, therefore, has responsibility for monitoring and supporting states’ compliance with the norms and rules that form the basis of the global refugee regime.

Despite these provisions in its Statute and in the 1951 Convention, at its creation states ensured that UNHCR had a limited role. They originally restricted the Office’s work to individuals who were refugees as a result of events in Europe occurring before 1951. The refugee instruments also focused exclusively on refugees to the exclusion of other displaced persons. Furthermore, states originally required UNHCR to be a small, low-budget and temporary organization that would play an exclusively legal advisory role rather than engage in the provision of material assistance. Yet, from these inauspicious beginnings, the Office has over time expanded and adapted to become a permanent global organization with an annual budget in 2016 of a pledged $6 billion and over 10,000 staff in more than 125 countries, offering protection and assistance not only to refugees but also to internally displaced persons, stateless persons and other displaced people.

At key turning points in the past 65 years, the Office has responded to changes in the political and institutional environment within which it works by reinterpreting and broadening its role and mandate. From the 1960s on, UNHCR expanded beyond its original focus on providing legal protection to refugees fleeing communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe to becoming increasingly involved in refugee situations in the global South. The passage of the 1967 UN Protocol eliminated the temporal and geographical limitations of the 1951 Convention. During the 1960s, violent decolonization and post-independence strife generated vast numbers of refugees in Africa which required it to take on an ever greater role in providing material assistance. The 1969 Organization of African Union Convention broadened the refugee definition further to include those fleeing ‘occupation, conflict and serious public order disturbances’. During the 1970s, mass exoduses from East Pakistan, Uganda and Indochina, highly politicized refugee crises in Chile, Brazil and Argentina, and the repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in southern Sudan expanded UNHCR’s mission around the globe. Following the refugee exoduses in South and Central America, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees expanded the regional refugee definition to include those fleeing ‘generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts or massive violations of human rights.’ The 1980s also saw the Office shift away from its traditional focus on legal protection and assume a growing role in providing assistance to millions of refugees in camps and protracted situations in Southeast Asia, Central America and Mexico, South Asia, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa. During the post Cold War era, UNHCR assumed a wider role in providing massive humanitarian relief in intra-state conflicts and engaging in repatriation operations across the Balkans, Africa, Asia and Central America. The early twenty-first century has seen UNHCR take on ever greater responsibility for the victims of some major natural disasters and to assume formal responsibility for the protection of conflict induced IDPs. A few states, NGOs and refugee researchers have expressed concern that the expansion of the Office's work to include IDPs and victims of natural disasters dilutes UNHCR's core protection mandate and overstretches the limited resources it has available for refugee protection and assistance.

UNHCR does not have a fixed budget but is entirely dependent on voluntary contributions to carry out its work. This gives significant influence to a limited number of states in the global North who have traditionally funded the bulk of UNHCR’s operational budget. During recent years the numbers and needs of refugees have been growing considerably faster than the level of funding available globally for humanitarian aid. Thus currently more than half of the needs of refugees and other populations of concern to UNHCR remain unaddressed further exacerbating their vulnerability. The Office needs significantly more secure funding to address the most basic needs of the people it is mandated to care for. At the same time, the Office works at the invitation of states to undertake activities on their territories and must therefore negotiate with a range of refugee hosting states, especially in the global South. UNHCR is consequently placed in the difficult position of trying to facilitate cooperation between donor states in the global North and states in the global South which host over 85 percent of the world’s refugees. At the same time, the Office works within changing global contexts, with changing dynamics of displacement, and with a range of partners, both within and outside the UN System. The humanitarian world is now characterized as a competitive marketplace which involves a vast range of actors each with their own mandate, institutional identity and drive to protect their own interests. These political and institutional constraints affect the functioning of the global refugee regime and the ability of UNHCR to fulfil its mandate.

The recent asylum crisis in Europe has confronted UNHCR with a nearly impossible task. As the crisis of asylum emerged, European states largely excluded the Office and increasingly devised their own responses to insulate themselves from the growing number of refugees seeking access to their territories. The lack of cooperation by states has significantly frustrated UNHCR’s activities and is one of its greatest current challenges.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Actors in National and International (Flight)Migration Regimes".
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Autor: Gil Loescher für bpb.de
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Gil Loescher

Gil Loescher

Dr. Gil Loescher is Visiting Professor at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford and author of UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path, Oxford University Press and co-author of UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection, Routledge.


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