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What is UNHCR?



The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides protection and assistance to the world's refugees. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the Agency was created on December 14, 1950, by the United Nations General Assembly and began work in 1951, initially aiding more than one million European refugees in the aftermath of the World War II. But in the following decades, as the number of uprooted people grew around the globe, its mandate was extended every five years. In December 2003, the UN General Assembly decided to remove the time limitation on UNHCR's mandate until the refugee problem is solved. During its lifetime, the Agency has helped more than 50 million people to successfully restart their lives, earning two Nobel Peace Prizes in the process - in 1954 and 1981.

Today, UNHCR is one of the world's principal humanitarian agencies, its staff of 6,500 personnel helping 20.8 million people in over 100 countries. These include not only refugees but related groups such as asylum seekers, refugees returning home and some, but not all, of the estimated 20-25 million people who are displaced within their own countries and officially identified as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Refugees are legally defined as people who are outside their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and who cannot or do not want to return home. As a humanitarian, non-political organization, UNHCR has two basic and closely related aims - to protect refugees and to seek ways to help them restart their lives in a normal environment.

International protection is the cornerstone of the Agency's work. In practice this means ensuring respect for refugee's basic human rights and ensuring that no persons will be returned involuntarily to the countries where they have reason to fear persecution - a process known as refoulement.

UNHCR promotes international refugee agreements and monitors government compliance with the international refugee law. Its staff work in a variety of locations ranging from capital cities to remote camps and border areas, attempting to provide the above-mentioned protection and to minimize the threat of violence, including sexual assault, which many refugees are subject to, even in countries of asylum.

The organization seeks long-term or durable solutions by helping refugees repatriate to their homeland if conditions warrant, by helping them to integrate in their countries of asylum or to resettle in the third countries.

UNHCR is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, principally from governments but also from intergovernmental organizations, corporations and individuals. It receives a limited subsidy of fewer than 2% of the total from the United Nations regular budget for administrative costs and accepts in-kind contributions including tents, medicines, trucks and air transportation.

As humanitarian crises have become more complex, UNHCR has expanded both the number and types of organizations it works with. United Nations sister agencies include the World Food Program (WFP), which supplies food and basic commodities to refugees, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Other organizations include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and more than 570 non-governmental organizations.