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The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1950, and began work in Geneva, Switzerland, a fortnight later on January 1, 1951. Initially, it was given a three-year mandate to help find solutions for about 1 million European refugees remaining in the aftermath of World War II. Then it was supposed to disband, the refugee problem ‘resolved’ once and for all. Sixty years later, however, UNHCR is still here and the plight of the world’s uprooted people remains as serious as ever.

Over the past six decades, UNHCR has become one of the world’s most respected humanitarian organizations, helping tens of millions of refugees around the world rebuild their lives. Two Nobel Peace Prizes, in 1954 and 1981, bear testament to UNHCR’s deep and ongoing commitment to the world’s most vulnerable people.

Today, UNHCR is headed by former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, the agency’s 10th High Commissioner. To meet the enormous new challenges of forced displacement in a fast-changing, globalized world, Guterres has overseen a series of sweeping reforms aimed at ensuring that UNHCR continues to respond to the needs of uprooted people wherever and whenever needed.

At its heart, UNHCR’s work revolves around three very human goals that all of us can relate to -- saving lives, restoring hope to those who have lost everything, and helping people to find their way ‘home’ again -- even if it means building a new life in a new land. Everyone deserves a place to call home.

Saving lives:  Basic survival is usually uppermost in a refugee’s mind upon being forced to flee conflict or persecution. The same is true of those who have been suddenly displaced by natural disasters. Traumatized and in strange surroundings, they often flee with nothing. They need help immediately if they are to survive -- food, water, shelter, medical care, security. Over the past six decades, UNHCR has helped tens of millions of uprooted people get through some of the biggest upheavals of modern times -- from the 1956 Hungarian uprising to the liberation wars of the 1960s and 70s, to the superpower proxy wars of the 1980s to the numerous post-cold war conflicts that continue to this day around the world. With some 7,000 staff in more than 120 countries, UNHCR is one of the world’s most field-oriented humanitarian agencies. This emphasis on being close to those it serves means UNHCR can quickly respond to emergencies, with the capacity at any given time to provide immediate life-saving assistance to up to 500,000 people anywhere in the world. Displacement crises can and often do erupt in some of the most difficult places on Earth. As a frontline humanitarian agency, it’s UNHCR’s job to get there fast and to save lives.

A Congolese woman at Gasorwe Refugee Camp in Muyinga Province, Burundi, pictured with her children, registers with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for voluntary repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A Congolese woman at Gasorwe Refugee Camp in Muyinga Province, Burundi, pictured with her children, registers with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for voluntary repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
UN Photo/Sebastian Villar

Restoring hope: Once the immediate survival needs of refugees are met, UNHCR ensures they receive the protection and assistance they need over the intermediate term while solutions are sought to end their exile. Unfortunately, this can sometimes take years. Long after the initial crisis has ended and the world’s media have turned their attention elsewhere, the plight of refugees continues -- often with no end in sight. Here, it is UNHCR’s job to make a difficult situation as safe and as dignified as possible. Often, refugees have lost everything but hope. UNHCR does all it can to keep that hope alive, including by continually seeking long-term solutions.

But until those solutions are found, it carries out a whole range of activities on behalf of refugees. For example, it assists governments in assuming their responsibility for the overall protection of refugees. It intervenes on behalf of asylum-seekers and refugees threatened with deportation. It monitors borders and detention facilities, and offers training to border police, immigration officials and other humanitarian agencies involved in protecting refugees. It manages sprawling refugee camps while also helping those who live on the local economy. It works with governments to find alternatives to detention of refugees and asylum-seekers. It helps governments to register asylum-seekers and refugees and to issue identity documents. In countries where national asylum systems are not in place or not working, it determines who has refugee status. It promotes a safe environment for refugees, protecting them from violence and exploitation. It works to ensure the provision of medical care and legal and psycho-social support, as well as basic education. These are just a few of UNHCR’s activities to keep hope alive.

Finding home: UNHCR’s ultimate goal -- and the desire of every refugee -- is to help uprooted people find a way home so they can begin rebuilding their lives. Usually, this means going back to their original homes once it is safe to do so through voluntary repatriation operations overseen by UNHCR. The agency also stays on to help them get a new start. Sometimes, however, repatriation is not possible and a new home in a new country must be found. Here, there are two options: local integration in the initial country of asylum, or resettlement to a third country. Every year, UNHCR helps hundreds of thousands of refugees find their way ‘home’ through one of these three durable solutions.

The start of the 21st Century has seen UNHCR dealing with major refugee crises all over the world. At the same time, it has been asked to use its expertise to help millions of people internally displaced by conflict. Less visibly, it has expanded its role in helping stateless people, a largely overlooked group numbering in the millions. And it has also joined United Nations’ efforts to provide more rapid and effective help to people affected by natural disasters. 

From only 34 staff members and a budget of $300,000 when it began work in 1951, UNHCR today has more than 7,000 staff and a global budget of more than $3.3 billion. Six decades after its establishment, the plight of the world’s uprooted people still shows no sign of abating.

Read more about UNHCR and its history
Read more about High Commissioner AntónioGuterres