60th Anniversary: UNHCR marks landmark with appeal for renewed commitment to helping the world's forcibly displaced

News Stories, 14 December 2010

© UNHCR/K.Gaugler
Helping Vietnamese refugees was one of the major challenges for UNHCR during its first 60 years. This boat was photographed just off the Malaysian coast in December 1978.

GENEVA, December 14 (UNHCR) The head of the UN refugee agency, António Guterres, marked the 60th anniversary Tuesday of the organization he heads by appealing for strengthened global impetus in tackling the world's new and fast-evolving displacement and statelessness problems. UNHCR staff members in the organization's Geneva headquarters and offices around the world are holding special birthday parties to mark the milestone.

Speaking at the agency's headquarters in Geneva, Guterres warned of multiple new factors that are causing displacement. He said many of these did not exist at the time of UNHCR's founding or when the major international refugee and statelessness conventions were created.

"UNHCR traditionally was supporting refugees, people that would cross a border because of a conflict or persecution," he said. "But now we see that more and more people are crossing borders because of extreme poverty, because of the impact of climate change, [and] because of their interrelation with conflict. So there are new patterns of forced displacement and the international community needs to be able to tackle those challenges."

UNHCR was created on December 14, 1950 by the UN General Assembly. Its original purpose was to address the post-World War II refugee situation in Europe, but its work quickly expanded. By 1956 it was facing its first major international emergency with the outpouring of refugees when Soviet forces crushed the Hungarian Revolution.

In the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa produced the first of that continent's numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention. Over the following two decades, UNHCR had to help with displacement crises in Asia and Latin America. Today it deals with major displacement situations around the world. The global population of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers stands at 43 million people most of them under UNHCR's duty of care.

Guterres pointed to major displacement from Somalia and Afghanistan as examples of 21st Century refugee problems that extend across multiple borders and require new and globalized approaches to finding solutions. He also highlighted the phenomenon of statelessness as requiring particular attention.

But on UNHCR's anniversary and its achievements over 60 years which include twice being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Guterres said the focus should be on coming challenges which would equal anything the agency has faced in its past.

"I think it is very important to recognize that the action of UNHCR has represented, for many people, life instead of death, home instead of total deprivation, health instead of a disease that can even represent the risk to die, protection against the most dramatic violations of human rights," he said. "We have many reasons to be proud, but we also have much more reason to be concerned with the challenges we face at the present moment, and recognizing that unfortunately the root causes of conflict and displacement are not being eliminated and the next few years will be as challenging as the past."

UNHCR's 60th anniversary year, which begins this week, coincides with several related anniversaries, including the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (July 28, 2011), the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (August 30, 2011), and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (October 10, 2011).

Over the coming months UNHCR will be using these occasions to push for strengthening of the international legal framework for dealing with the world's statelessness and displaced, including through increased state accessions to the key refugee and statelessness conventions.

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UNHCR Turns 60Play video

UNHCR Turns 60

The UN refugee agency was founded on December 14, 1950, to help the forcibly displaced after World War Two. It has since assisted tens of millions.

The 1951 Refugee Convention

The Geneva Refugee Convention has been instrumental in helping an estimated 50 million people restart their lives.

1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol

The key document on refugee protection in full, plus the text of the Protocol

60 Years in Photos

For more than six decades UNHCR has been helping the world's uprooted peoples.

The agency's first task was to help an estimated 1 million, mainly European civilians, who remained displaced in the aftermath of World War Two.

But during the 1950s the refugee crisis spread to Africa, later to Asia and then back to Europe, becoming a global problem.

At the end of 2009, on the eve of its 60th birthday, more than 26 million forcibly displaced people were receiving protection or assistance frpm UNHCR. During its lifetime, the agency has assisted more than 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives. More than half of the refugees the agency helps now live in urban areas.

In the past two decades, UNHCR has been helping increasing numbers of internally displaced people as part of an inter-agency approach. UNHCR has also been helping hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the crisis in Iraq, both inside and outside the country. UNHCR also has a mandate to help the world's stateless people, who number an estimated 12 million.

This is a pictorial history of those turbulent years, UNHCR's role and the struggle for survival of one of the world's most vulnerable groups of people.

60 Years in Photos

Courage: 60 Years of the UN Refugee ConventionPlay video

Courage: 60 Years of the UN Refugee Convention

A two-minute documentary that reminds us why the 1951 Convention is so important in giving protection to those who've fled war and persecution around the world. Courtesy of the Scottish Refugee Council