Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was originally established by the General Assembly of the United Nations for a three-year period from January 1, 1951, to December 31, 1953, but it has since been voted successive five-year extensions through 1958, 1963, 1968, and 1973. Within the framework of the United Nations, the UNHCR superseded the International Refugee Organization (IRO), 1947-1952, which had in its turn taken over the refugee work of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), 1943-1947.

In the mandate of the UNHCR, the term «refugee» is carefully defined: in general, the refugee is a person who, because of fear of persecution arising from his race, creed, or political philosophy, is living outside his former home country and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of that country’s protection. UNHCR provides him international protection in accordance with the provisions of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees adopted in 1951, which has been operative since April, 1954, and has now been ratified by sixty countries. The 1967 Protocol broadens the provisions of the 1951 Convention to include new groups of refugees, and the UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum of 1967 extends the effectiveness of international protection. Protection is broadly aimed at promoting international legal instruments for the benefit of refugees and ensuring that they are treated in accordance with such instruments, in particular as regards right to work, social security, and access to travel facilities.

With headquarters in Geneva and at present some thirty branch offices situated in strategic spots throughout the world in addition to special representatives and correspondents, UNHCR is not a specialized agency but an integral part of the UN, its High Commissioner being nominated by the Secretary-General and elected by the General Assembly.

In function, UNHCR, unlike IRO, is promotional rather than operational. It coordinates international action for refugees, establishing liaisons with governments, with UN specialized agencies, with intergovernmental organizations, and with nongovernmental organizations. It seeks permanent solutions to the problem of refugees through voluntary repatriation, a preferred solution; through emigration, a solution applied in conjunction with the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration; and through integration in the country of residence, a solution that has proved workable for vast numbers of refugees. The aim of UNHCR is to promote action which will help the refugees to become self-supporting, and eventually, through naturalization to cease being refugees. Assistance given in achieving this aim may include emergency aid and rural settlement projects in Africa and to some extent in Asia; mainly housing and establishment assistance in European countries; and counseling, education, and training of one sort or another in most areas.

The UN provides administrative expenses and extends to the High Commissioner permission to obtain appropriations for current programs from individual governments and to accept contributions from private sources. The funding target for any given year is determined by the Executive Committee upon recommendation of the High Commissioner whose budget varies in response to the needs of the time. Special programs are specially financed. For example, early in the 1950’s the Ford Foundation provided a grant of about $3,000,000 (increased to about $8,000,000 with matching funds from other sources) to carry out pilot projects in the economic integration of refugees in Austria, Germany, France, and Trieste, and on the resettlement of refugees in Latin America, Canada, and Australia.

From 1955 to 1958 there was an UNHCR material assistance program known as the UNREF Program which was budgeted at $16,000,000. Since 1959 there have been annual programs varying in size between $3,000,000 and $7,000,000. In 1960, World Refugee Year, the annual program was unusually large, amounting to about $12,000,000.

Within these programs special allocations were made for various purposes, such as Camp Clearance (that is, the finding of permanent solutions for refugees in European camps), and assistance to refugees in the Far East. Since 1963, a part of each program has been devoted to projects for refugees of longer standing and part to projects for new refugees.

From 1957, while the work in Europe continued, the Office, acting on the basis of resolutions of the General Assembly requesting the High Commissioner to extend his good offices to refugees not covered by the original Statute of 1950, provided assistance to various groups of refugees in other parts of the world. In 1957 and again in 1962 the High Commissioner was asked to use his good offices to encourage arrangements for contributions to assist Chinese refugees in Hong Kong whose numbers are estimated at over one million. In 1957-1958 UNHCR took action in cooperation with the League of Red Cross Societies to alleviate the plight of Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco, and in 1962 participated in their voluntary repatriation.

Since 1962, and again on the basis of the good offices resolutions, the epicenter of UNHCR material assistance has moved from Europe to Africa and to some extent to Asia, where world events have caused a steady increase in the number of refugees requiring assistance. By 1969 there were in Africa about one million refugees within the competence of UNHCR, of whom 250,000 received material assistance during that year. UNHCR assistance was given also to needy refugees among the Chinese refugees in Macao and the Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. In Africa, and to some degree in Asia, the main solution for the refugee problem has been rural settlement, in which the Office has cooperated extensively with governments and with agencies, members of the United Nations system. In some cases these settlement projects have led to development programs for refugees and the local population alike.

In the twenty-year history of the Office, there have been four high commissioners: G.J. van Heuven Goedhart (1951-1956), The Netherlands; Auguste R. Lindt (1956-1960), Switzerland; Felix Schnyder (1961-1965), Switzerland; Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1965- ), Iran.

Selected Bibliography

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. United Nations Document A/Conf. 2/108, August, 1951.

The Displaced Persons Analytical Bibliography. House of Representatives Report No. 1687. Washington, D.C., Superintendent of Public Documents, 1950.

Edding, Friedrich, The Refugee as a Burden, a Stimulus and a Challenge to the West Germany Economy. The Hague, Nijhoff, 1951.

Elbadrawy, B.M.F., The Refugee: A Problem of International Social Welfare. New York, Columbia University Press, 1951. Contains a bibliography.

Frings, Paul, Das internationale Flüchtlingsproblem. Frankfurt am Main, Verlag der Frankfurter Hefte, 1951.

Heuven Goedhart, G.J. van, «The Problem of Refugees.» Five lectures. Académie de droit international: Recueil des cours, 82 (1953) 265-369. Leyden, Sijthoff, 1954.

Holborn, Louise, The International Refugee Organization. London, Oxford University Press, 1956.

Proudfoot, Malcolm J., European Refugees, 1939-1952: A Study in Forced Population Movement. London, Faber & Faber, 1957. Contains a bibliography.

Stoessinger, John George, The Refugee and the World Community. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1956. Contains a bibliography.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Reports. See UN General Assembly, Official Record, Sixth Session and sessions thereafter. Or see United Nations Documents Index: United Nations and Specialized Agencies Documents and Publications, Vols. 1-13 (1950-1962), and its successor, United Nations Documents Index: Cumulative Index and Cumulative Checklist, Vol. 14- (1963- ).

Vernant, Jacques, The Refugee in the Post-War World. London, Allen and Unwin, 1953. Contains a bibliography.

Woodbridge, George, The History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. 3 vols. New York, Columbia University Press, 1950.

See also selected bibliography for the Nansen International Office for Refugees, Vol. 2, p. 284.

* The editor gratefully acknowledges permission to use freely material kindly supplied by the UNHCR for this history.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

This text was first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1954

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