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What Is UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency?

By

UNHCR Commissioner António Guterres

UNHCR Commissioner António Guterres commemorating World Refugee Day in June 2009 at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.

© UNHCR
Question: What Is UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency?
Answer: The United Nations Refugee Agency , or UNHCR (its official name is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950 and began work in 1951, on a $300,000 budget, on a three-year mission to help the remaining 1 million World War II refugees return to their homes.

The agency, one of the United Nations' least heralded and most effective, was created in tandem with the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention (read the full document). Far from a temporary crisis that could be resolved, however, the world's refugee problem after World War II became a permanent phenomenon. UNHCR's mission never ended. It changed, and continued to grow. In 2003, the General Assembly abolished the requirement that UNHCR renew its mandate every few years.

The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, 93% of those contributions from governments. UNHCR's budget in 2009 was $2 billion. By far UNHCR's largest expenditure in 2009 was for Iraqi refugees. That program accounted for $397 million of the agency's budget. Other programs included Somalia ($54 million), Darfur ($42 million), Southern Sudan ($57 million), the repatriation of refugees from Senegal and Mali in Mauritania ($10.7 million), and the Caucasus crisis.

The 2009 budget included US$1.3 billion for the annual budget and US$765 million for supplementary appeals. The top five donors in 2008 were the United States (US$510 million), the European Commission (US$130 million), Japan ($110 million), Sweden ($105 million) and the Netherlands ($85 million). (See a complete list of donors and amounts. While UNHCR has helped 50 million refugees over the years, the size of the mission continues to increase most years.

As of 2010, UNHCR's staff of 6,650 (including 740 in UNHCR's Geneva headquarters) worked in 118 countries through 108 regional and branch offices and 151 sub- and field offices, assisting some 34 million people, 10.5 million of them refugees. Those numbers do not include the 4.7 million registered refugees are looked after in some 60 camps in the Middle East by United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was set up in 1949 to care for displaced Palestinians.

Nor do the numbers reflect the entirety of the world's refugee problems. "The number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million" at the end of 2008, UNHCR reported in June 2009, "amid a sharp slowdown in repatriation and more prolonged conflicts resulting in protracted displacement. The total includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million internally displaced people uprooted within their own countries."

More than half the refugees under UNHCR's jurisdiction are in Asia, 20% are in Africa.

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