How UNHCR Came About and What They Are Today

March 14, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.

Click here for 2021 shadowing opportunities

What is the UNHCR

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a United Nations Refugee Agency whose main objective is to protect and give support to refugees at the request of governments or by the United Nations itself. The three primary services that the UNHCR extends to refugees include assistance, repatriation and resettlement. The organisation’s headquarters is located in Geneva, Switzerland.

Seconds after a complicated birth by C-section The Early Days of UNHCR

UNHCR is a member of the United Nations Development Group. The organization was established after World War II to help Europeans who were displaced during the war. It was officially launched on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly and soon after its launch the United Nations Convention laid the foundation and guidelines to be used for helping refugees. The guidelines were legalised and the UNHCR basic statute was adopted in July 28, 1951.

The UNHCR faced its first major emergency in 1956 with the deluge of refugees after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution. With its first operation itself, the realisation that the UNHCR would become an indispensable organisation became apparent.

The UNHCR was needed again when the African decolonisation in 1960 resulted in countless refugees. The organisation was needed again over the following 2 decades to help displaced Asians and Latin Americans. The problems in Africa resurfaced again at the end of the century.

UNHCR in the 21st Century

At the start of the 21st century, the organisation played a key role in helping refugees from Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. They also played a role in helping Asia with a 30-year old refugee problem stemming from Afghanistan.

Over time, the role of the UNHCR has expanded from being an organisation that helps displaced refugees to an internationally recognised organisation that helps stateless people with no legitimate citizenships. Being stateless, living on “foreign soil”, these stateless people are typically denied basic rights that enable them to live humanely. The UNHCR steps in to bridge that gap.

In 1954, the UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in Europe. Its 3-year mandate was never followed. Instead it was extended till the end of the decade. The organisation received their second Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 for assisting refugees world-wide despite the strong political opposition that they faced.

The UNHCR Today

The UNHCR began its work with just 34 staff members when it was founded in1950. It now has over 7,685 national and international staff members around the world. About 972 members are based in the Geneva headquarters. Today, the organisation works in 126 countries with staff in 135 regional and branches around the globe. There are also 278 people stationed in remote field offices. Together the staff assists approximately 14.7 million displaced people, 10.5 refugees, 3.1 returnees, 3.5 stateless people, and more than 837,000 asylum seekers.

Starting off with only US$300,000 earmarked towards refugee assistance, the budget has now grown to US$3.59 billion as of 2012. The organisation that was initially given a 3-year mandate will celebrate its 64th anniversary in December 14, 2014.