Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


UNHCR logoUNHCR was established by the United Nations General Assembly on 1 January 1951, for a three-year period and has been renewed since for successive five-year periods. An integral part of the United Nations, the High Commissioner follows policy directives from the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. The current High Commissioner is Ms Sadako Ogata of Japan.

UNHCR has provided international protection for refugees by maintaining their right of asylum and seeking to prevent any forced return to the country from which they have fled. UNHCR works for voluntary repatriation and when this is not possible, integration within the first country of asylum or resettlement elsewhere.

In 1955, when UNHCR won its first Nobel Peace Prize, the number of refugees worldwide was about 2.2 million, more than half of them in Europe. Ten years ago there were 11 million. By the beginning of 1995, while the refugee population had reached 14.5 million, the total number of people of concern to UNHCR had risen to some 28 million. Humanitarian emergencies have increased in both scale and complexity. Although UNHCR’s mandate is to protect and assist refugees, the agency has been called on increasingly to assist a broader range of people living in refugee-like situations. In 1995 they included 5.4 million “internally displaced persons” (those who have been displaced within the borders of their own countries, usually because of civil or ethnic conflicts); 4 million returnees (refugees who have recently returned to their homelands and are assisted by UNHCR); and 3.5 million others of concern (people who are in a refugee-like situation but who have not been formally recognised as refugees).

With the end of the Cold War, many refugees were repatriated to countries in Africa and Asia where conflicts which had been fueled by that struggle came to an end. This produced a new problem, however, the need to assist returnees who had spent over a decade away to reintegrate into home communities whose social and economic infrastructure in many cases had been destroyed. Despite the success of the Namibia operation, of the 45,000 former refugees who returned to Namibia in 1989, for example, 90 per cent of them were unemployed one year later, and by 1991 the figure was still 75 per cent. It was clear that just meeting the goal of repatriation was not enough, and in such cases the General Assembly has directed UNHCR to provide humanitarian assistance and promote social reintegration.

In recent years UNHCR has faced growing challenges. In addition to the need for such assistance for returning refugees, the number of new refugees has continued to rise. Most difficult of all for UNHCR have been an accelerating series of crises which have included the flight of 1.8 million Iraqi Kurds to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the border between Turkey and Iraq, major population displacements in the Transcaucasus, the Horn of Africa and parts of Western Africa, the massive exodus of over 2 million refugees from Rwanda and the war in former Yugoslavia, which alone has produced nearly 4 million refugees, displaced persons and others of concern to UNHCR.

In response to the most severe refugee crises in history, UNHCR has continued to develop its emergency response capacity and to pursue preventive and solution-oriented approaches. In so doing, it has collaborated increasingly closely with political, peacekeeping and development initiatives, with other organs of the United Nations, with intergovernmental and regional bodies and with a wide range of non-governmental organisations.

Selected Bibliography
Refugees. A monthly journal published by UNHCR.
Other Sources
Loescher, G. Beyond Charity: International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. (An excellent concise examination of the historical origins and present consequences of the refugee crisis, with a plea for comprehensive political actions to deal with it.)
Holborn, Louise W. Refugees, a Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissionerfor Refugees, 1951-l 972. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985.
Kismaric, Carole. Forced Out. The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time. New York: Random House, 1989. (Well illustrated, highly recommended.)
Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. (Excellent survey.)
United Nations Yearbook. (This annual publication includes a summary of the work of UNHCR.)
The State of the World’s Refugees 1993. The Challenge of Protection. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
The State of the World’s Refugees 1995. In Search of Solutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

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 1981

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