History of UNHCR
A Global Humanitarian Organization of Humble Origins
The UN Refugee Agency emerged in the wake of World War II to help Europeans displaced by the conflict in the countries where they had sought asylum. Established on 14 December, 1950, the agency originally had a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband.
However, the problem of displacement did not disappear. In 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 surfaced.
Over the following years, displacement has turned into a persistent worldwide phenomenon. In the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa produced the first movement of the continent's numerous refugee crises requiring UNHCR’s intervention. Over the 70s and the 80s of the 20th century, UNHCR had to help with displacement in Asia and Latin America. By the end of the 20th century, fresh refugee crises emerged in Africa and, turning full circle, new movements of refugees in Europe as a consequence of the series of wars in the Balkans.
The start of the 21st century has seen UNHCR helping in major refugee crises on the African continent, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, and in Asia, especially the 30-year-old Afghan refugee situation. At the same time, UNHCR has been asked to use its expertise to also help many internally displaced by conflict. Less visibly, it has also 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, UNHCR’s original 1951 mandate has been strengthened by agreements on regional legal protection instruments.
In 1954, the UN Refugee Agency won the Nobel Peace Prize for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe. A quarter century later, in 1981 UNHCR received the award again for what had become worldwide assistance to refugees, with the citation noting the political obstacles facing the organization.
From only 34 staff members when UNHCR was founded, it now has some 7,680 national and international staff members, a large majority of them in the field. The agency works in over 125 countries, with staff based in 414 offices, most of them remote sub- and field offices. Today UNHCR deals with 33.9 million people: 10.5 million refugees, 14.7 million internally displaced people, 3.1 million returnees, 3.5 million stateless people and more than 837,000 asylum-seekers. UNHCR’s budget has grown from US$300,000 in its first year to more than US$3.59 billion in 2012.
In December 2003, the UN General Assembly finally abolished the requirement for the agency to keep renewing its mandate every few years. In 2010, UNHCR celebrated its 60th anniversary, aware that the humanitarian needs are unlikely to disappear.