United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Center for Minority Public Health, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA
The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the end of World War I. In 1921, it created the position of High Commissioner to deal with the large numbers of persons who had been displaced during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Office of the High Commissioner was charged with the responsibility of defining the status of the refugee, helping refugees to find employment, and protecting refugees from continued expulsion. But persecution, political violence, natural disasters, armed conflict, and other catastrophic events continue to make it necessary for millions of people to flee their homes and seek protection in other countries.
In 1945, the League of Nations was replaced by its successor organization, the United Nations. The United Nations replaced the Office of the High Commissioner with the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1947. The International Refugee Organization only addressed the needs of refugees from Europe. Accordingly, in 1951, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created and addressed refugee problems around the world. This office was established to give legal, social, economic, and political aid to refugees.
The definition of a refugee now follows the construction of the United Nations convention and is defined as a person who, “owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such a fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Today the UNHCR provides refugees with material support such as food, shelter, healthcare, education, and other related social services and works in conjunction with other United Nations agencies, peacekeepers, military forces, regional agencies, human rights organizations, and other international and local organizations and agencies. As an example of the assistance provided to refugees, refugees living with HIV in Botswana are being provided with treatment under a special UNHCR program.
Yet, measures to relieve the plight of those experiencing forced migration, internal displacement or asylum have drastically diminished in relation to the growing scale of the problem. Although the annual budget of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rose to $1 billion in 1997 through voluntary government contributions, the agency is increasingly unable to meet the present demand for food and shelter to support refugees, or to invest in rehabilitation or repatriation of these refugees.
More recently, the UNHCR has undergone some harsh charges that it is simply a pawn of state and capitalist interests. The UNHCR has also been the focus of charges that it has acted as an imperialistic opportunist and has betrayed its fundamental values in pursuit of institutional predominance in the international humanitarian field. As a result, the UNHCR is a conflicted organization, torn between its legal and human rights obligations and its need to appease the Western states that pay its bills.
The UNHCR's current emphasis appears in recent years to have broadened to include issues related to security of refugees: social security, economic security, and environmental security, and the all-inclusive “human security.” This new emphasis reflects the UNHCR's continuing evolution from aid/development to legal protection to repatriation and, finally, to human security. The ability of the organization to undergo evolution had been envisioned for the UNHCR from the beginning. Because of its ability to Page 1459 | Top of Articleadapt to changing circumstances and address the needs of refugees, the office was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1954 and again in 1981.
Website for UNHCR. http://www.unhcr.org