The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Why they are our hero of December
By Chiara Maria Natta
“On UNHCR’s 70th anniversary, my challenge to the international community is this: put me out of a job. Make it your goal to build a world in which there is truly no need for a UN Refugee Agency because nobody is compelled to flee.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
The Network for Migration Matters has made the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) our Hero of December.
Whilst Europe was rebuilding itself after the Second World War, on 14 December 1950 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, was established by the UN General Assembly. According to UNHCR’s Statute “The work of the High Commissioner shall be of an entirely non-political character; it shall be humanitarian and social and shall relate, as a rule, to groups and categories of refugees.”
UNHCR initially had three years to assist European refugees and then had to disband. Sadly, the agency did not disband as the world never saw another day without a single refugee.
On 14 December 2020, UNHCR turned 70. Throughout the decades, UNHCR has continuously worked to guarantee the protection of refugees and allow for people to access asylum procedures around the world, which in 2019 amounted to 24.5 million asylum seekers and refugees, out of the 86.5 million persons of concern to UNHCR**.
The agency, which works in 135 countries with more than 17,300 employees, has three primary focuses: providing life-saving support to people forced to flee their homes, safeguarding fundamental human rights and building better futures by finding durable solutions for refugees, whether it be returning them home on a voluntary basis, integrating them in the host community, or resettling them in a safe country.
UNHCR protection officer Shirin Aktar relocates a group of newly arrived Rohingya refugees families at Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. Photo belongs to UNHCR/Paula Bronstein
These were the three successful solutions for which, in 1954, UNHCR became the first United Nations agency that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee stated that the prize was awarded "for its [UNHCR’s] efforts to heal the wounds of war by providing help and protection to refugees all over the world." At that time UNHCR concentrated its efforts predominantly in Europe, however in 1981 the organisation’s work was recognized as having global reach when the agency received its second Nobel Peace Prize “for promoting the fundamental rights of refugees.”
As can be interpreted from Article 35 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention), UNHCR acts as the guardian of the Convention which forms the basis of international refugee law. Given the agency’s “duty of supervising the application of the provisions of the Convention” (as stated in Article 35 of the 1951 Refugees Convention), on various occasions UNHCR has intervened before international and national courts as an amicus curia (a friend of the court) to support States with the accurate interpretation and implementation of refugee law.
UNHCR also provides physical support to refugees,
85% of whom find themselves in developing countries. During emergency situations, UNHCR provides clean water, healthcare, sanitation, tents, household goods and sometimes food. The agency also provides income-generating projects for resettled refugees and transport for those who return home. UNHCR understands the hardships of starting life in a new community and thus engages in using cash-based interventions to provide protection, assistance and services to the most vulnerable.
During COVID-19, UNHCR concentrated on ensuring that refugees, stateless persons and internally displaced persons were included in national health-care plans and had access to health and sanitation systems. Additionally, UNHCR released various recommendations (that can be found on our COVID-19 Resources Page) seeking to guarantee the protection, entry in countries, and access to asylum procedures by persons in need of international protection.
SUDAN | UNHCR staff roll out COVID-19 prevention efforts in South Darfur. South Sudanese refugees wash their hands as a preventive measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, before their biometric registration at Bileil camp, South Darfur.
We congratulate UNHCR for its continuous dedication and the very necessary work that it carries out for refugees, stateless and internally displaced persons across the world. We are honoured to call all UNHCR workers our heroes of the month on the month that the agency turned 70. The Network for Migration Matters, just as the UNHCR’s High Commissioner, longs for the day to see a world with no refugees. However, until then we will continue to be inspired by the creative, effective and humanitarian measures that the organisation provides to guarantee the protection of those fleeing persecution.
If you want to know more about the work UNHCR conducts, check out our webinar:
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**Definitions of Persons of Concern to UNHCR
Refugee – “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” 1951 Refugee Convention
Stateless persons – “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons
Internally Displaced Persons – “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.” United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement
International Conventions Relevant to UNHCR’s work: