Over the 63-year history of the UNHCR, the staff, budget, legal framework, NGO network, geographic scope and expertise of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expanded. Despite the initially ambitious goal of solving all refugee problems in three years, the extended mandate of the UNHCR speaks to the consistent problem of refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and stateless peoples.
WWII left around 400,000 people homeless refugees strewn across Europe. In 1950, the ambitious new global institution, the UN, created the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband. With only 34 staff members and a $300,000 first-year budget, the UN quickly realized the magnitude of the problem far outweighed the resources of the body. A year after its inception, a legal foundation for assisting refugees was set up to establish a legal framework under which refugees can claim international rights. In recognition of the innovative humanitarianism the UNHCR performed, the new organization won the 1954 Nobel Peace Prize.
When the Soviets put down the Hungarian revolution in 1956, an outpouring of refugees into neighboring countries was a humanitarian emergency. The decolonization of Africa in the 1960s and pursuant demarcation of sovereign state boundaries “produced the first of that continent’s numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention.” Through the 1970s and 1980s, the UNHCR advocated and assisted refugees in Asia and Latin America. In 1981 the UNHCR again won the Nobel Peace Prize for “assistance to refugees, with the citation noting the political obstacles facing the organization.”
When the Berlin Wall fell and proxy wars ended, governments previously ‘shored up’ by foreign assistance were weakened. This allowed the “proliferation of identity-based conflicts” causing new refugee problems. The 1990s brought the refugee emergencies full circle back to Africa and Europe with the wars in the Balkans. Throughout the 21st century, the UNHCR has been assisting refugees in the extremely sensitive crises of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.
The UNHCR also expanded to assist internally displaced persons and stateless peoples—a politically divisive issue. Stateless peoples are frequently overlooked and denied basic human rights because they do not have citizenship. Fortunately, in some regions, regional agreements have strengthened the 1951 mandate.
As population movement becomes more complex so does the refugee situation. Approximately 150 million people live outside their country of birth. 10% of these people are refugees. This amounts to about 1 out of 400 people worldwide. Most often, refugees are created from violent conflict and recent research and practitioners’ experiences show humanitarian aid can no longer be considered independent of a conflict. Often, conflicting factions see the humanitarian body as supporting one side or the other making the aid workers and aid vulnerable to attack and manipulation.
Fortunately, the UNHCR has reflected the growing problem by growing size, scope, and depth of action. In 2012, the UNHCR had a budget of $3.59 billion and a staff of 7,685 based in the Geneva headquarters, 126 countries within which 135 main offices operate and 279 remote field offices function. Of the 43 million people uprooted worldwide, the UNHCR supports 33.9 million ‘people of concern.’ The two largest groups are internally displaced persons (14.7 million people) and refugees (10.5 million persons). The remaining group’s returnees (3.1 million), stateless people (3.5 million), asylum seekers (837,000) and ‘other’ (1.3 million).