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UNHCR marks its 60th Anniversary

© UNHCR/K.Gaugler

On December 14, 2010, UNHCR marked its 60th anniversary - a momentous milestone for an organisation that was only expected to be in existence for a handful of years to assist Europeans displaced by the Second World War.

When the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the United Nations General Assembly on December 14, 1950, it was optimistically supposed to complete its work in three years and then disband. The following year, on July 28, 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 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.

The start of the 21st Century saw 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, UNHCR 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. 2011 also marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

In 1954, the new organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize for ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe. More than a quarter century later, UNHCR received the 1981 Nobel for what had become worldwide assistance to refugees. From only 34 staff members in 1951 UNHCR now has more than 7,200 national and international members of staff in 126 countries.

UNHCR now deals with more than 43 million people of concern: 27.1 million internally displaced persons, 15.2 million refugees, 6.6 million stateless persons and more than 983,000 asylum seekers. As UNHCR starts its seventh decade, the humanitarian needs of those displaced by conflict, persecution and human rights abuses are unlikely to disappear.