The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Protecting Refugees

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a UN Agency focused on refugees, coordinating aid provided to them, and protecting their rights worldwide.

With its headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR is headed by the High Commissioner for Refugees appointed by the UN Secretary General, though finally acclaimed with the vote of the UN General Assembly.

When in the aftermath of  WW II it became clear that refugees’ problems and rights had to be handled by the international community, in 1947 the International Refugee Organization was founded. On 14 December 1950, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established, initially intended to operate for 3 years, and meant to be resolved once the problems of refugees and displaced population had been rectified.

In 1956, however, there occurred yet another European crisis requiring aid to refugees. UNHCR became committed to assisting the Hungarians fleeing their country to escape persecution after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution which started on 23 October 1956, thus proving the optimistic assumption that once the post-WW II refugee problems had been solved the Agency would no longer be needed to have been a miscalculation.

Soon afterwards the High Commissioner was tasked with assisting Chinese refugees from Hong Kong, while also involving in solving the crisis caused by Algerian refugees who had fled to Morocco and Tunisia in the wake of Algeria’s war for independence.

In the result of subsequent revolts and uprisings in Africa against colonial powers, it became clear that a long period of destabilization throughout almost the entire continent was starting. Refugees having found asylum in one country, soon after the war had reached their new home too, were once again on the go, unprotected. UNHCR’s operations, earlier concentrated in Europe, inevitably spread to other regions of the world. By the late 1960s, two thirds of the Agency’s budget were allocated to relief projects aimed at African refugees.

In the 1970s, in turn, UNHCR was providing aid to refugees throughout Asia: it had aided people fleeing from East Pakistan before Bangladesh was established and helped millions of Vietnamese escaping the war-struck country. UNHCR had thus become a global organization, protecting refugees’ rights, preventing large-scale humanitarian crises, founding refugee camps even in the countries affected by war.

Moreover, there emerged a new category of refugees: those who were not escaping a war, but large-scale ethnic conflicts and cleansing breaking out in the countries where independence had just been regained. UNHCR’s efforts were all the more challenging, as civilians were attacked and even seemingly a minor conflict could lead to a mass exodus of population from the territories struck by an ethnic conflict or a revolt.

One of such crises could be seen in Ruanda’s tragedy where in 1994 a massive genocide was committed, however it had not been brought to public attention in time. Meanwhile, when merely several years later there was a NATO’s intervention in the war-torn Balkans, the world media were carefully following the events. The Agency therefore became strongly focused on systematically informing the media and public opinion of crises and their refugee-aid projects.

UNHCR has persisted in consolidating the awareness of refugees’ needs as well as tragedies worldwide; since 1954 the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, honouring the Norwegian polar explorer, the first League of Nations’ High Commissioner for  Refugees and the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, has been presented.

Agency’s information campaigns have been targeted, among others, at lobbying for a less restrictive immigration policy of the rich countries, since UNHCR, while complying with its mission, has been struggling for everyone to be entitled to seek asylum and find a safe home in a different country, to settle down there, or to return to their homeland when the circumstances allow.

Presently, UNHCR has major missions in Lebanon, South Sudan, Chad/Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan as well as Kenya to assist and provide services to refugees. Estimates have it that since its launch, the Agency has helped over 50 million refugees worldwide.

When the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was first established, it merely had 34 employees. Currently, it employs over 7,000  in 125 countries, while the organization provides assistance to ca. 34 million individuals around the globe. UNHCR’s budget which in the organization’s first year amounted to $ 300,000, in 2012 exceeded $ 3. 59 billion.

UNHCR has been twice awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: in 1954 and 1981. The first one was won for the aid provided to refugees in Europe, while 27 years later for the Agency’s commitment to refugees worldwide, especially in view of dangers and challenges that imply the realities of war-torn countries or countries struck by other sort of conflicts.

Antonio Guterres, a Portuguese politician and the country’s former Prime Minister, currently serves as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; since 2012 Angelina Jolie has been the Agency’s Special Envoy and Goodwill Ambassador. Former famous UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors have included such celebrities as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Marta Fita-Czuchnowska (PAP)

On the 13th World Summit of the Nobel Peace Laureates the organization will be represented by:

Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Head, Communications Service
Spokesperson for the High Commissioner

As Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming leads communications efforts around the globe and serves as Chief Spokesperson.

Operating in 120 countries, UNHCR provides shelter and help for over 30 million people who have fled wars and persecution. Ms. Fleming serves as Spokesperson to the High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. She introduced strategic communication planning designed to increase empathy and support for refugees and the forcibly displaced.  She leads global media outreach and campaigns with a new emphasis on multi-media production and social media.

UNHCR has won the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 1954 and 1981.

Melissa joined UNHCR from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where she served for eight years as Spokesperson/Head of Public Information during the period the organisation made headlines for its inspection work in Iraq, Iran and North Korea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Prior to IAEA, she headed the Press and Information team at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. She started her career as a journalist and worked at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

She received a B.A. in German Studies from Oberlin College and a M.S. in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University. 

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