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History of UNHCR

History of UNHCR
© UNHCR

Humble origins

The UN Refugee Agency emerged after World War II to help Europeans displaced by this conflict. Established on December 14, 1950, the agency was given a three-year mandate to complete its work.

But the work didn’t end. In 1956, UNHCR faced its first major emergency – the flight of refugees from Hungary after Soviet forces crushed its revolution. 

In following years, displacement grew into a worldwide phenomenon. In the 1960s, decolonization in Africa sparked the continent’s first refugee crises, and UNHCR responded. Over the following decades, UNHCR went on to tackle emergencies in Asia and Latin America. 

By the end of the 20th century, displacement had come full circle. Fresh crises emerged in Africa and conflicts in the Balkans created Europe’s first refugees since the end of WWII.

With the turn of the 21st century, UNHCR has continued its work in Africa (in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia), and is active in Asia where the Afghan refugee situation marks its thirtieth anniversary. 

In recent years, UNHCR has expanded its role by coming to the aid of the internally displaced, and by helping millions of stateless people who have been denied basic rights because of their lack of citizenship. 

In Africa and Latin America, regional legal instruments on refugees have strengthened UNHCR’s original 1951 mandate.

In 1954, UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its ground-breaking work aiding the plight of European refugees. In 1981, UNHCR received another peace prize for its worldwide efforts. The citation for this prize noted the political obstacles the agency faces and overcomes in the completion of its mandate.

From a staff of 34 at the time of its founding, UNHCR now boasts 7,685 national and international staff members. The majority of these professionals work in the field. The agency is active in over 125 countries, and has 414 offices, most of which are remote sub-offices and field offices. 

Today, UNHCR’s activities affect 35.8 million people – 10.5 million refugees, 17.7 million internally displaced people, 525,940 returnees, 3.3 million stateless people, and 936,740 asylum-seekers. 

The Refugee Agency’s budget has grown from US $300,000 in its first year to more than US $4.3 billion in 2012.

In December 2003, the UN General Assembly abolished the requirement that the agency renew its mandate every few years. In 2010, UNHCR celebrated its 60th anniversary, a proud and humbling milestone that revealed how humanitarian needs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

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Pictorial History of UNHCR

60 turbulent years in pictures. Learn on UNHCR's role in refugee crises and the struggle for survival of one of the most vulnerable groups.

Nansen refugee award

Learn on the pioneering work of the very first High Commissioner on behalf of refugees and the award named after him and given for outstanding service to the cause of refugees.

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