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History of UNHCR


History of UNHCR

Established in the aftermath of the Second World War, UNHCR has been protecting people forced to flee conflict and persecution for over 70 years.
Black and white photo of three women and a child arriving at a refugee camp in Austria.

In this section:

There for people forced to flee for over 70 years. 

Initially, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was established in the aftermath of the Second World War to help the millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes. We were given three years to complete this work, and then disband. 

Today, we are a global organization dedicated to protecting people forced to flee and those left stateless. We lead international action to protect refugees, deliver life-saving assistance, help safeguard fundamental human rights, and develop solutions that ensure people have a safe place to call home where they can build a better future.

As new refugee crises unfolded across the globe, our mandate was extended multiple times throughout the 20th century until a General Assembly resolution in 2003 made the mandate permanent.

Over the years, our scope has widened to also include supporting refugees returning home, people forcibly displaced within their own country, and those denied a nationality and left stateless.

UNHCR now has 20,305 personnel working in 136 countries. We have helped more than 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives and continue to protect and provide support for the 117.3 million people who are currently displaced.

UNHCR through the years

For over 70 years UNHCR has been working to strengthen international refugee protection systems and provide aid and assistance to those that are forced to flee their homes. Learn more about our beginnings and how our mission has expanded and evolved.

Black and white photo of a conference of the League of Nations
First High Commissioner for Refugees appointed
The League of Nations, forerunner to the United Nations, appoints Norwegian scientist and explorer Dr. Fridtjof Nansen as the first High Commissioner for Refugees, marking the start of the modern international system for protecting refugees.

Pictured: The First Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva, 15 November 1920.

A sample of a passport
The Nansen Passport is introduced
One of the biggest problems refugees left displaced and stateless by the First World War face is a lack of internationally recognized identification papers.

In response, the High Commissioner introduces the 'Nansen Passport'. It is effectively one of the first legal instruments to grant international protection to refugees and allows almost half a million displaced people the right to settle in a new country.

Black and white photo: A group fo refugees wait to board a ship
The Second World War ends
The Second World War has wrought devastation across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. An estimated 60 million people have lost their lives and whole cities lie in ruins. UNHCR’s predecessor, the International Refugee Organization (IRO), helps one million people to resettle in other countries.

Pictured: People from camps in Germany, Austria and Italy prepare to board an IRO-chartered ship to the United States of America in 1951.

Black and white photo of a conference
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 14 (1) of the Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

© UNHCR/J.Cadoux
Black and white photo of refugee family in a camp in Europe
UNHCR is born
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is established by the United Nations General Assembly, mandated to "assume the function of providing international protection [...] to refugees who fall within the scope of the present Statute and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees".

The Office's first task is to help the more than one million people who remain displaced after the Second World War, mainly in Europe. UNHCR has a three-year mandate to complete this work and then disband.

A black and white photo showing travel documents and The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
The 1951 Convention is adopted. It consolidates earlier international instruments and provides the most comprehensive codification of refugee rights at the time.

It defines the term ‘refugee’, outlines their rights and the international standards of treatment for their protection. However, significantly, it is limited to persons who became refugees before 1 January 1951.

Mr. Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, hands the Nobel Peace prize to to the United Nations High Commissioner.
UNHCR awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
UNHCR receives the 1954 Nobel Peace Prize, with the ceremony taking place in 1955. UNHCR is the first United Nations agency to receive the award.

During his Nobel Lecture, then High Commissioner Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart said "There can be no real peace in this world as long as hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children [...] still remain in camps and live in misery and in the greatest uncertainty of their future."

© UNHCR/E.Skau
Black and white photo of three women and a child arriving at a refugee camp in Austria.
Hungarian uprising
The Hungarian uprising and its brutal suppression see more than 200,000 people flee to neighbouring countries. UNHCR faces its first post-war emergency, coordinating help for the thousands of displaced who arrive exhausted, hungry and in need of shelter.

This marks UNHCR’s transformation from an organization that dealt with the aftermath of the Second World War to one that could rise to the challenge of new, large-scale emergencies.

Black and white photo of a refugee family
Algerian War of Independence as colonialism winds down in Africa
In May 1957, Tunisia asks UNHCR for assistance to protect thousands of Algerian refugees who have fled the War of Independence with France in their country. It is Africa's first modern refugee crisis and UNHCR’s first involvement on the African continent. UNHCR provides food, clothing and medical assistance to over 200,000 refugees in Tunisia as well as Morocco.

The following decade will see UNHCR support tens of thousands of people who flee the chaos of independence struggles in parts of Africa as colonialism winds down.

© UNHCR/Stanley Wright
Black and white photo of a group of Angolan refugees waiting for food rations
The 1967 Protocol is adopted
The need for refugee aid and protection has spread far beyond Europe. Huge new refugee populations have been created in Asia and Africa.

The 1967 Protocol is introduced to amend the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was limited to those who became refugees before 1 January 1951. It extends protection to all refugees no matter the date they were forced to leave their homes.

© UNHCR/E.Schlatter
A group of Vietnamese refugees help carry each other to shore in Malaysia after their boat sank
Fall of Saigon
Following the fall of Saigon, thousands of Vietnamese refugees take to the sea despite the risks of piracy and drowning. The group pictured made it to Malaysia in 1978 after their small boat sank mere metres from the shore.

Nearly 255,000 Vietnamese 'boat-people' were given temporary asylum in Malaysia, with UNHCR helping over 240,000 resettle in other countries.

© UNHCR/Kaspar Gaugler
A Cambodian refugee child looks at photos of other refugees
Height of the Indochina refugee crisis
Upheavals following the Communist victories in former French colonies of Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam continue to drive mass displacement in the region.

Under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, an estimated one million people are executed or die of starvation, disease or overwork. When the regime falls in 1979, hundreds of thousands stream into neighbouring Thailand to shelter in UNHCR-supported camps, among them many unaccompanied children.

© UNHCR/R.Burrows
An older Guatemalan refugee women in a colourful dress
Central America civil wars and unrest
UNHCR is involved in Central America for the first time as civil wars and widespread human rights abuses displace two million people from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

More than 300,000 people were assisted in the region, including this Guatemalan refugee photographed in 1982 in Mexico, where UNHCR organized agricultural and other self-sufficiency projects.

© UNHCR/Marc Vanappelghem
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Poul Hartling, receiving the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize from Professor J. Sanness, Chairman of the Nobel Committee.
UNHCR is awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize
In recognition of efforts to protect millions of refugees displaced around the world, UNHCR receives the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize. It is only the second time an organization has received the prize twice, and UNHCR is the only UN agency to do so.

“Today, the voices of millions of refugees in the world are being heard. Voices seeking belief in man, in human dignity, in basic human rights,” said then High Commissioner Mr. Poul Hartling in his Nobel Lecture.

© Norsk Presse Servece/Jens Kvale
A large group of Rwandan refugees walk on a road through the country side
Rwandan genocide
An estimated 800,000 Rwandans are killed in widespread massacres between April and July 1994. A further two million people flee in a mass exodus to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR provides protection and assistance, including establishing camps and coordinating humanitarian aid. At the time, it was one of the most complex and challenging emergencies UNHCR had faced.

© UNHCR/Panos Moumtzis
A UN flag flies in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
UNHCR’s mandate is made permanent
The United Nations General Assembly removes the time limitation on the continuation of the Office of the High Commissioner, making the mandate permanent “until the refugee problem is solved.”

Prior to this, UNHCR’s mandate had been formally renewed every few years.

© UNHCR/Mark Henley
Syrian crisis
Conflict in Syria breaks out in March 2011, forcing millions to flee their homes over the next few years. Many will remain displaced for years to come, with an estimated 6.8 million Syrian refugees still displaced abroad in 2021, over a decade after the war began.

Pictured: Syrian refugees walk the final metres across the desert toward the Jordanian border in January 2014.

© UNHCR/Jared Kohler
A large pile of discarded orange lifejackets lies in a field.
Mediterranean refugee crisis
The Mediterranean refugee crisis dramatically escalates. One million refugees and migrants arrive in Europe by sea. Many make the crossing in overcrowded and unsafe boats that stall or sink on the way. In 2015 alone, over 3,700 people die or go missing at sea.

UNHCR provides support and care as people arrive and along key migration routes in Europe, while also calling for a comprehensive European response to the crisis and emphasizing the need for safe and legal asylum pathways.

© UNHCR/Gordon Welters
A man waves to a young girl sitting on a bus, they are separated by the window glass.
Ukraine war triggers fastest-growing refugee crisis since Second World War
The Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sees 5.7 million Ukrainians flee their country, the fastest outflow of refugees on record since the Second World War.

By the end of the year, the total global number of people forcibly displaced will top 100 million people, meaning 1 in every 74 people on earth has been forced to flee.

Pictured: A father says farewell to his family at Lviv bus station in western Ukraine as they leave for safety. © UNHCR/Valerio Muscella
A young woman wearing a headscarf sits at a desk in a classroon.
Looking to the future
As we move into the next decade, the number of people forced to flee is sadly only continuing to rise, with over 100 million displaced by the end of 2022. UNHCR is increasingly focused on empowering and seeking solutions for displaced and stateless people, while also working to mitigate the effects of the growing climate crisis on displacement.

Our vision remains of a world where every person forced to flee has the opportunity to build a better future.

© UNHCR/Charity Nzomo

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