International Organizations: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

History: In 1950 the U.N. General Assembly created The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  UNHCR was established by the U.N. General Assembly. Other attempts before this had been made by the U.N. to create an organization; however, the mass amount of refugees from WWII provided the final push to create UNHCR.  UNHCR was only given a three-year mandate to help resettle WWII refugees, but, as the refugee crisis continued to increase in other parts of the world, its mandate was extended every five years. Eventually the time limitation was removed from the mandate in December 2003.

Mandates: UNHCR is mandated by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. This defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligation of states to refugees.

Finance and Governance:  UNHCR has a yearly budget of about a billion dollars. This budget comes mainly comes from governments, some intergovernmental organizations, corporations and individuals. UNHCR also receives around two percent of the total from the United Nations regular budget.  UNHCR must give a written report to the United Nations General Assembly annually on their yearly activities. Their proposed activities and programs must be accepted by an Executive Committee of 66 member states. In addition, a Standing Committee from the General Assembly meets several times a year to approve UNHCR activities. The High Commissioner must also regularly report to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Mission:  UNHCR’s main focus is to protect the rights, health, living standard, and dignity of all refugees. UNHCR acts so that all can employ their rights to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state.  They also strive to help refugees to return to their home state voluntarily. UNHCR works to prevent the number of refugees by supporting countries in the creation of conditions which encourage the dignity of human beings and the peaceful mediation of conflicts.

What They Do:  UNHCR has 6,540 staff in 116 countries. On average they help 19.2 million refugees yearly by offering protection and assistance to them in an impartial manner, “on the basis of their need and irrespective of their race, religion, political opinion or gender.”   UNHCR’s activities range from providing emergency camps and food to refugees, advocating for policies respectful of refugee rights, or offering legal representation to a refugee in need.  Since its conception, UNHCR has helped an estimated 50 million internally displaced persons and refugees.   In all of its activities, UNHCR believes it is vital to advocate for the special needs and rights of children, women, and girls.  In order to provide the best advocacy, UNHCR seeks to coordinate its efforts with governments, regional organizations, international and non-governmental organizations.

Headquarters: UNHCR’s headquarters is in Geneva, Switzerland with the other UN affiliates, but it also has offices in the 116 different countries it does frontline work in.

Notable Facts:
•    The amount of internally displaced persons and refugees increased 13 percent in the past year.
•    There are an estimated 25 million internally displaced persons and refugees globally.
•    2 to 5 percent of all refugees are unaccompanied children.
•    The current High Commissioner is Mr. António Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal.
•    The United States did not originally sign 1951 Refugee Treaty; they became party to the convention when they signed the1967 Protocol.
•    Angelina Jolie is a good will commissioner for UNHCR.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822