United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved

By adopting this statute, the United Nations and international community reaffirmed their commitment to protect and assist persons with a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to their homelands.

Summary of Event

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), under U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie, was created on December 14, 1950. This event, however, did not mark the first effort by the international community to address the problem of large-scale refugee migrations. In 1921, the League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen Nansen, Fridtjof to the post of high commissioner for refugees for the purpose of grappling with refugee problems associated with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Later, Nansen extended protection and assistance to Armenians, Assyro-Chaldeans, and Turks fleeing from turmoil attending the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Efforts by the League of Nations on behalf of refugees continued officially until the organization’s dissolution in 1946. [kw]United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved (Dec. 14, 1950)
[kw]High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved, United Nations (Dec. 14, 1950)
[kw]Refugees Statute Is Approved, United Nations High Commissioner for (Dec. 14, 1950)
[kw]Statute Is Approved, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Dec. 14, 1950)
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[g]North America;Dec. 14, 1950: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved[03350]
[g]United States;Dec. 14, 1950: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved[03350]
[c]United Nations;Dec. 14, 1950: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved[03350]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 14, 1950: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved[03350]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Dec. 14, 1950: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved[03350]
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Heuven Goedhart, Gerrit Jan van
Kingsley, J. Donald
Lie, Trygve

During World War II and its immediate aftermath, several organizations were established to deal with the nearly thirty million displaced persons and refugees in Europe. Many of these people were homeless, destitute, and highly vulnerable, especially during Europe’s cold winters. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), established in 1943, cared for and assisted millions of displaced persons and repatriated some six million persons before it was replaced by the Preparatory Commission for the International Refugee Organization Preparatory Commission for the International Refugee Organization (PCIRO) in 1947. The Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), first established in 1938 to deal with the Jewish refugee problem spawned by Nazi anti-Semitic policy in Germany, also briefly took responsibility in 1946 for Nansen refugees who had been under the care of the League of Nations.

In 1947, work on behalf of refugees and displaced persons in Europe was consolidated under the authority of the PCIRO and in 1948 under the fully constituted but temporary mandate of the International Refugee Organization International Refugee Organization (IRO). By this time, Cold War politics were chilling international relations, and the IRO contended not only with a large number of war-displaced persons but also with new arrivals from behind the Iron Curtain. In 1946, the U.N. General Assembly reaffirmed the principle that no persons fearing persecution could be compelled to return to their country of origin against their will, even if their governments insisted upon their return, as many East European Refugees;Eastern Europeans governments did. Thus, although the IRO was charged with exploring repatriation of refugees and displaced persons as the solution of first preference, thousands of East Europeans refused to go home, so the IRO explored possibilities of settlement in their countries of first asylum or resettlement to third countries.

Under the leadership of its directors-general, including J. Donald Kingsley, more than one million persons were resettled in third countries during the IRO’s operations, mainly in the United States, Australia, Israel, and Canada. Nevertheless, by the time the IRO was liquidated and its protection function shifted to the UNHCR in 1951, there were still about 400,000 refugees under the IRO mandate who had not been resettled.

With the IRO’s mandate fast approaching its conclusion, the General Assembly on December 3, 1949, established another temporary successor agency. Wrangling over the exact nature and extent of this new agency’s mandate centered on whether it should be responsible for material assistance and the very expensive resettlement operations conducted by the IRO or merely for protection of refugees until resettlement was effected by another agency. The United States, which had financed up to 70 percent of the IRO’s work, wished to see expenditures for refugee operations reduced, while West European countries worried about the political and economic implications of a large and lingering refugee population in their territories. The Soviet Union and East European countries resented the creation of any agency that would protect and assist exiles from their territories and refused to become members of the UNHCR, which they viewed as a tool of Western capitalism.

The upshot of these variable pressures was the creation of an agency whose responsibilities included, first and foremost, protection of refugees. The UNHCR also was given responsibility for material assistance to refugees, but its initial budget, provided out of the regular U.N. budget, included only administrative expenses, not operational ones, and any efforts by the UNHCR to raise revenue from governments or private sources directly was subject to General Assembly approval.

Under its statute, the UNHCR had no direct responsibility for resettlement of refugees; this function was later placed in the hands of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration . The UNHCR was given responsibility for seeking permanent solutions for refugees, which included not only repatriation and local integration but also third-country resettlement. More important, the statute’s definition of the term “refugee” was sufficiently elastic to include all persons previously classified as refugees by the IRO and other persons who could show a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to their country of nationality. The definition was universal in nature, and—unlike the definition incorporated in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which contained time restrictions—was potentially applicable whenever refugee problems might arise. Moreover, the statute stipulated that the UNHCR’s work was entirely nonpolitical in nature, focusing rather on the social and humanitarian aspects of refugee situations.

Answering to the General Assembly through the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, and working under the supervision of an advisory committee composed of governments and other interested parties, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart was named to a three-year term as the UNHCR’s first high commissioner and assumed his position on January 1, 1951. Operating under the statute’s initially restricted and temporary, but potentially elastic, mandate, van Heuven Goedhart aggressively carved out a permanent and effective UNHCR role not only for protecting but also for assisting refugees. He won permission from the General Assembly to seek funds for emergency assistance in 1952. In 1953, the General Assembly extended the UNHCR’s mandate from three to five years, and in 1954 the high commissioner was allowed to seek funds for a Program of Permanent Solutions. In the same year, the UNHCR won the first of two Nobel Peace Prizes Nobel Peace Prize;United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees .

Measured in human terms, the early success of the UNHCR not only meant that refugees would be spared from forcible repatriation to countries that might persecute them but also that they would be provided with care and assistance until they could find new and permanent homes. In addition to protection and assistance, the UNHCR provided hope for a better future to destitute and homeless people who otherwise might have died or languished in poverty. In time, and contrary to the initial hopes and expectations of its founders, global events dictated that the UNHCR could not remain a temporary and fragile holding operation. Hundreds of thousands of European refugees benefited from its work in the early 1950’s, and as time passed millions more would benefit in every corner of the globe.


The true impact of the General Assembly’s decision to create the UNHCR cannot be measured solely by its immediate effects. With a budget in 1952 of little more than $700,000 and only about 400,000 European refugees under its care, the UNHCR’s birth was not an especially auspicious one. Nevertheless, and despite periodic budgetary crises throughout its history, the UNHCR matured into an agency responsible for the protection and welfare of some sixteen million refugees throughout the world. Its annual budgets regularly approached or exceeded $500 million by the early 1990’s. After that time, the numbers of refugees declined, in part to successful repatriation programs and the resolution of refugee-producing disputes. UNHCR budgets in the early twenty-first century ranged between $350-400 million, as the refugee population dropped below ten million. Nevertheless, counting internally displaced persons and others of concern to the UNHCR, more than nineteen million persons fell under its mandate in 2005, and it maintained a physical presence in 116 countries.

As refugee situations developed in Africa and Asia during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the U.N. General Assembly encouraged the UNHCR to extend its protection and assistance functions to non-European contexts, despite the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) restriction that considered only those persons fleeing from persecution as a result of events prior to January 1, 1951, as refugees. This extension of UNHCR good offices was made easier when, in 1967, a protocol to the 1951 convention formally removed the time limitations. Thus, over the years—informally and through ad hoc procedures before 1967 and more formally and routinely since then—the UNHCR has extended its protection and assistance to refugees in developing countries where civil war, domestic upheaval, and political persecution, often exacerbated by drought and famine, have produced refugee flows of monumental proportions.

The hallmark of the UNHCR has been its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to cope with the often very difficult political circumstances that surround refugee situations. Having started on tenuous footing with a fragile consensus among governments, the UNHCR, under the leadership of several high commissioners, has proven its worth as an indispensable element of the international refugee protection and assistance network. United Nations;refugee aid programs
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Further Reading

  • Chandler, Edgar H. S. The High Tower of Refuge. New York: Praeger, 1959. This book, written by a former director of the Service to Refugees of the World Council of Churches, offers an inspiring and compassionate from-the-trenches perspective about refugees and relief workers, the very constituencies for which UNHCR was created and upon which it relies to carry out its mandate. Photographs, index, short bibliography.
  • Fullerton, Maryellen. “The International and National Protection of Refugees.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice, edited by Hurst Hannum. 4th ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2004. Examines the international community’s role in protecting political and other refugees. Recommended for study of the legal implications of refugee status and human rights.
  • Gordenker, Leon. Refugees in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. A thoughtful and balanced analysis of the global refugee problem and the role of the UNHCR. Using the notion of forced migrations as the test for defining refugees, the author discusses realistic ways in which the international community can respond to contemporary refugee emergencies and resolve long-term refugee situations. Bibliography, index.
  • Gorman, Robert F. Coping with Africa’s Refugee Burden: A Time for Solutions. Boston: Kluwer, 1987. This book describes the difficulties encountered by the UNHCR and other bodies in meeting the assistance needs of asylum (developing) countries and their local populations, whose well being is often adversely affected by large numbers of refugees. Figures, tables, bibliography, index.
  • Gowlland-Debbas, Vera, ed. The Problem of Refugees in the Light of Contemporary International Law Issues. Boston: M. Nijhoff, 1996. A good resource exploring refugee concerns in the context of late twentieth century international law and policy.
  • Holborn, Louise W. Refugees, a Problem of Our Times: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1951-1972. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. The definitive work on the formation of the UNHCR and its first two decades of work. Highly detailed and voluminously documented, this book serves as a sequel to Holborn’s work on the UNHCR’s predecessor, the IRO. Charts, tables, index, bibliography.
  • Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. This painstakingly researched, comprehensive, and readable history of Europe’s refugee problem traces in detail Jewish and European refugee flows and the international politics that spawned them from the late nineteenth century to the creation of the UNHCR. An excellent treatment of League of Nations and pre-UNHCR international policy responses. Bibliography, index.
  • Shawcross, William. The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. This journalistic account of the conflicting interagency mandates and governmental policies that plagued the Cambodian relief effort provides insight into the difficulties that the UNHCR and other international and private relief agencies encounter in highly politicized situations. Lacks consultation with academic sources but is strong on interviews. Source section, index.

  • The State of the World’s Refugees, 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A 237-page report by the UNHCR. Focuses on the ongoing task of the agency for the new century and beyond.
  • Vernant, Jacques. The Refugee in the Post-War World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953. This lengthy encyclopedic work meticulously catalogs the global refugee situation as it existed at the inception of the UNHCR. Early chapters summarize the refugee problem and international agency responses to it. Subsequent chapters catalog the legal, economic, and social status of refugees by country of reception. Charts, bibliography, index.
  • Zarjevski, Yefime. A Future Preserved: International Assistance to Refugees. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1988. Chronicles the formation and growth of the UNHCR to the mid-1980’s. Surveys refugee situations in various regions while documenting how the UNHCR gradually strengthened its capacity to provide protection and assistance to refugees. Bibliography, index.
  • Zolberg, Aristide R., Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Three refugee specialists provide a comprehensive assessment of the factors that motivate and exacerbate refugee flows in the developing world. The role of the UNHCR is ably and extensively analyzed. Exhaustively documented and footnoted. Index, no bibliography.

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