Archives and records
It occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva, while our digital archives comprise some 10 million documents.
Collecting and maintaining archives can pose special challenges for an organization like UNHCR. For example, when militants overran camps in what was then eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) back in 1997, staff jammed what papers they could into the backs of trucks as they were evacuated. Some material was saved, but not all of it. The rescued files were later shipped to Geneva, where they now reside in our central archive.
Today, the UNHCR archive occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva. Digital archives, comprising some 10 million documents and growing, are stored and managed on a handful of dedicated, secure servers. It also includes material that predates the creation of UNHCR.
Following the lifting of many Covid-19 restrictions in Switzerland, bookings for on-site research in the UNHCR archives reading room is once again possible as of October 2021.
The number of appointments are restricted to 50% of our normal capacity, so booking well in advance of your preferred dates is strongly advised. The limited remote enquiry and digitization service offered during the reading room closure will continue, given ongoing travel and health restrictions. Please contact [email protected] for further information.
The archive occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva. Digital archives, comprising some 10 million documents and growing, are stored and managed on a handful of dedicated, secure servers.
Materials of historical interest make up about half of the paper archives. The rest, mostly internal documents such as financial reports, is held for several years before being discarded. Digital archives, such as email messages and reports, are also sorted for permanent or short-term preservation.
The collections are globally and historically unique in scope and content. They contain a trove of detail about important historical events, including, for example, records from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the first major emergency in which we became operational, as well as emergencies in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, and in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They contain originals, for instance, of the letter sent by the late Tunisian leader, Habib Bourguiba, seeking international help for refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Algeria in 1957 – the first plea to UNHCR for help by a country outside Europe. UNHCR is working to bring more material back from the field and to implement state-of-the-art systems for the preservation of digital materials in order to make them more accessible.
The material is used both by staff and by outside researchers. Records of intractable situations where UNHCR has been working for decades, such as southern Sudan, are drawn on to brief staff as they head out into the field. By opening its archives to the public, we demonstrate a commitment to transparency regarding our role as a humanitarian agency, and promote scrutiny and understanding of the troubled contemporary history of our world.
The Archive Holdings
Our archives contain information from the founding of the organization in 1950 to the present day. They also hold several pre-UNHCR collections, which provide valuable background to the development of protection work.
The archives are organized into “fonds”, which are groups of records from a single office or a donation of records from outside UNHCR. The list of fonds is constantly expanding, as records are received from field offices and headquarters.
The UNHCR Archives Access Policy opens research files that are more than 20 years old. Before research is possible, UNHCR must review each file to ensure there is no risk of releasing personal information related to refugees or to other people of concern to UNHCR.
UNHCR Web Archive
The Internet is becoming the most important source of public information in UNHCR and its websites hold information and multimedia content which is of value to the organization and its partners in the near and long term.
The Records and Archives Section (RAS) archives many of UNHCR’s main websites and also runs special projects to capture institutional websites and social media accounts, as well as the websites and social media accounts of specific countries and staff members. This is all part of our approach to documenting emergencies.
The first capture was made in December 2015 and covers the main sites and the Syria and Iraq Situations. Since then, RAS has been undertaking regular captures, which can all be found in our on-line Archives Catalogue with full descriptive metadata. It is also possible to access UNHCR’s content via the Mirrorweb portal. Please use Firefox or Chrome only for accessing the Mirrorweb portal.
UNHCR’s web-archive portal can be accessed here: https://webarchive.archive.unhcr.org/
Tips for using
It is important to remember that archived sites do not behave and sometimes display as normal live sites and so some links may not have been captured and a page ‘404 webpage cannot be found’ may come up. You may also come across live sites but you will know an archived site from the URL which appears e.g. unhcr.org: https://webarchive.archive.unhcr.org/20180621010848/http://www.unhcr.org/
There will also be [ARCHIVED CONTENT] preceding the title of the webpage in the top tab.
Many of the sites contain Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos, certain photo galleries and other social media sites but not all may have been captured for technical reasons. The optimal browser for the web archive is Firefox or Chrome.
UNHCR Archives Access and Research Policy
If you wish to use our archives, please refer to the online catalogue. In case you do not find the information you are looking for, please email us. When you have identified all the information you would like to review, please send your Research Application form to UNHCR Archives with the proposed dates of research, giving at least two weeks' notice, and the list of material you wish to see in order of priority. Upon receipt, the Archives department will review the request and arrange an appointment.
The UNHCR Archives are located in our headquarters at 94 Rue de Montbrillant, CH-1202 Geneva, Switzerland. Research facilities are open Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 13:00. Please consult the Research Room Regulations before your visit. For more information, write to us in Geneva or email [email protected].