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UNHCR (United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees)

Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation 1991

Headquartered in Geneva, the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR (Spanish acronym, ACNUR), was established by virtue of Resolution 428 (V) of the United Nations General Assembly and began operations on 10th January 1951. It is a strictly apolitical humanitarian body devoted to providing protection and assistance to refugees from all over the world. As stipulated in the Statute of the Office, UNHCR has two main functions: to provide “international protection” for refugees and to seek “permanent solutions” to the refugee problem. The High Commissioner is elected every five years by the UN General Assembly at the proposal of the Secretary-General.

UNHCR has had several predecessors. To mention just a few, in 1921 the Council of the League of Nations appointed Dr Fridtjof Nansen “the Society’s High Commissioner, to deal with the problem of Russian refugees in Europe”. In 1931, the Society created the Nansen International Office for Refugees and, in 1933, the High Commission for Refugees from Germany. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was instituted in 1943 and the United Nations established the International Refugee Organization in 1947.

UNHCR deals, first and foremost, with all those persons to whom the refugee definition contained in the Statute of the Office, drafted in 1950, applies: Any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”. However, since the Statute was drafted, the many new and large-scale humanitarian problems that have arisen around the world have prompted governments to expand the categories of people that can be considered under UNHCR’s remit.

The UNHCR protection role stems from the Statute of the Office of the High Commissioner. However, there are international legal instruments that are also of crucial importance for the effective protection of refugees. The most important of these is the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, supplemented by the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

These instruments provide a definition of the term “refugee” and establish minimum standards for the treatment of refugees. Currently, 104 countries participate in one or both of these instruments. There are other international legal instruments that address the issue of refugees either directly or indirectly. One of the most important is the Convention that governs the specific aspects of the problems of refugees in Africa, adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1969.

UNHCR can initiate material assistance programmes only when the host government asks for help. In many cases, the first request is for emergency relief in such essential matters as food, water, shelter and medical care. Once the emergency phase of an operation has passed, however, UNHCR strives to help refugees to rely on themselves whenever possible. To this end, education and professional training programmes are set up and activities that produce income are encouraged.

As soon as the immediate assistance needs of the refugees have been met, the search for lasting solutions begins. There are three possible long-term solutions: voluntary repatriation, local integration in the country of asylum, or resettlement in another country. Voluntary repatriation is considered the preferred solution to the problem, but it is not always possible because it usually requires a fundamental change in the country of origin. UNHCR helps refugees integrate into the country where they initially sought asylum. The purpose of local integration is to help refugees to rely on themselves in their country of residence, while host governments are encouraged to grant them the same facilities to which nationals are entitled.

The work of UNHCR is financed entirely through voluntary contributions from governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals. Only a small amount is received each year from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used only to help defray administrative costs.

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