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History of UNHCR

A Global Humanitarian Organisation of Humble Origins

The UN Refugee Agency emerged in the wake of World War II to help Europeans displaced by that conflict. Optimistically, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14th, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly with a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband. The following year, on July 28th, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - the legal foundation of helping refugees and the basic statute guiding UNHCR's work - was adopted.

By 1956 UNHCR was facing its first major emergency, the outpouring of refugees when Soviet forces crushed the Hungarian Revolution. Any expectation that UNHCR would become unnecessary has never resurfaced. In the 1960s, the decolonisation of Africa produced the first of that continent's numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention. Over the following two decades, UNHCR had to help with displacement crises in Asia and Latin America. By the end of the century there were fresh refugee problems in Africa and, turning full circle, new waves of refugees in Europe from the series of wars in the Balkans.

© UNHCR/157/1951. The agency’s predecessor, the International Refugee Organisation, had helped 1 million people, including these Europeans from camps in Germany, Austria and Italy en route to a new life in the United States, to resettle in other countries.

The start of the 21st Century has seen UNHCR helping with major refugee crises in Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, and Asia, especially the 30-year-old Afghan refugee problem. At the same time, UNHCR has been asked to use its expertise to also help many internally displaced by conflict. Less visibly, it has expanded its role in helping stateless people, a largely overlooked group numbering millions of people in danger of being denied basic rights because they do not have any citizenship. In some parts of the world, such as Africa and Latin America, the original 1951 mandate has been strengthened by agreement on regional legal instruments.

In 1954, the new organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe. Its mandate had just been extended until the end of the decade. More than a quarter century later, UNHCR received the 1981 award for what had become worldwide assistance to refugees, with the citation noting the political obstacles facing the organisation. From only 34 staff members when UNHCR was founded, it now has 6,650 national and international members of staff, including 740 in UNHCR's Geneva headquarters. The agency works in 118 countries, with staff based in 108 main locations such as regional and branch offices and 151 often remote sub-offices and field offices.

The budget has grown from US$300,000 in its first year to more than US$3 billion in 2011. UNHCR now deals with around 45.2 million people of concern: 28.8 million internally displaced people and 15.4 million refugees, plus another 10 million stateless people and more than 890,000 asylum seekers. An organisation with a three-year mandate to solve the problem of refugees celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2010, aware that these humanitarian needs are unlikely to disappear.

UNHCR/29015/1999/R.LeMoyne. Within days of NATO’s air strikes against Serb positions in 1999, nearly 1 million civilians fled or were forced into exile from Kosovo, including these civilians at a border crossing with the neighbouring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

UNHCR turns 60

Founded on December 14, 1950 to help the forcibly displaced after World War Two, UNHCR has since assisted tens of millions around the world.

The 1951 Refugee Convention

The 1951 Refugee Convention

The Geneva Refugee Convention is just over 60 years old. It has been instrumental in helping an estimated 50 million people restart their lives.