United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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Persecution, political violence, natural disasters, armed conflict, and other catastrophic events are among the numerous reasons that, throughout history, millions of people have had to flee their homes as refugees and seek protection in other countries. Organized efforts to protect and assist refugees while finding lasting solutions to their problems can be traced back to 1919 and the founding of the League of Nations. Due to the large numbers of refugees that resulted from World War I, the Russian revolution, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations, in 1921, created the position of High Commissioner to deal with the problems of displaced persons.

Initially, the office of the High Commissioner addressed the needs of refugees from Europe, but later became more involved with displaced persons from other nations, including Syria. At that time, refugee assistance focused on defining the status of refugees, helping them with employment, and protecting them from further expulsion.

In 1945 The League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations (UN), and in 1947 the UN created a new agency called the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to deal with matters affecting displaced persons. However, this organization only addressed the needs of refugees from Europe. In 1951 the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created to replace the IRO. In contrast to the former organization, the UNHCR was charged with addressing refugee problems around the world.

The main role of The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is to protect and assist refugees in finding durable solutions to their displacement, addressing their special needs, and promoting and monitoring states' adherence to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in order to provide adequate protection to the refugees in their respective territories.

UNHCR activities changed significantly during its first half century of existence. For example, the scale of UNHCR operations was greatly increased, with offices in more than 120 nations around the world in 2001. In addition to permanent solutions to the long-term needs of refugees, the organization provides assistance with many more immediate concerns for survival. Initially, the UNHCR focused primarily on facilitating the flow of refugees. Now it also provides material support such as food, shelter, health care, education, and other related social services. It has also designed special programs to meet the specific needs of groups such as women, children, adolescents, the elderly, and those who are suffering from the effects of war trauma. Additionally, the UNHCR has developed programs that assist displaced people within their own countries, returnees, asylum seekers, and stateless people. Finally, the UNHCR works hand in hand with other United Nations agencies, peacekeepers, military forces, regional agencies, human rights organizations, and other international and local organizations and agencies.

Since its establishment in 1951, UNHCR has had as its primary mission the goal of meeting the needs of those forcibly displaced. However, the agency faces continuing challenges such as limited funding, difficult working environments, military threats, large numbers of displaced persons, and often overwhelmingly poor health conditions. Finding clear, lasting, and meaningful solutions to refugee problems around the world is extremely difficult due to complex political, economic, social, and related barriers. However, with more than 20 million refugees worldwide todayand another 24 million displaced personsthere is an obvious need for the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to work jointly to ensure peace and tranquility by mobilizing resources that support displaced persons.

Michele Yehieli

Clementine Mukeshimana

(see also: Famine; Genocide; International Health; Natural Disasters; Refugee Communities; Terrorism; War; World Health Organization )


UNHCR (2000). The State of the World's Refugees 2000. Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Available at http://www.unhcr.ch/.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees