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UNHCR Celebrates 60th Anniversary

  • Lisa Schlein

A UNHCR truck in Kosovo assisting displaced Roma Gypsies (file photo)

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees marks the 60th anniversary of its founding on December 14th. The UNHCR was organized in the aftermath of World War II. It was set up as a temporary agency to help about a million people displaced by the conflict in Europe. The agency was supposed to have completed its work within three years and then gone out of business. But, six decades later, the UNHCR is still assisting millions of refugees and internally displaced people.

That the UNHCR lurches from one refugee crisis to another is no cause for celebration. But, the fact that the agency has helped more than 50 million refugees rebuild their lives over the past 60 years is worth applauding. The UNHCR has received two Nobel peace prizes in recognition of the work it has done on behalf of some of the most bereft people in the world.

Permanent temporary mode

Ironically, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Alexander Aleinikoff, says the UNHCR has operated in a sort of temporary limbo for most of its existence. He explains people believed the refugee situation was temporary and would be solved.

"And, it was not until just a few years ago that we were finally put on permanent footing by the UN with the unfortunate recognition that refugee issues will probably be with us forever, that there will be people fleeing across their borders for a range of reasons, who will need international protection, assistance and support. And, we play that role," said Aleinikoff.

First major crisis

In 1956, the UNHCR faced its first major emergency. Soviet troops crushed a Hungarian uprising, sending more than 180,000 Hungarians into neighboring countries in search of refuge.

Consultant and former chief spokesman for the UNHCR, Ron Redmond, says this was a major turning point for the agency.

"The agency until that time had dealt with what we call individual cases-individuals fleeing persecution. Now, you have got a huge group of people fleeing for the same reason and so UNHCR began addressing refugees as groups en masse, what we call prima facie cases," said Redmond.

Major trouble spots

In the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa produced the first of that continent's many refugee crises. Other major events include the Vietnamese boat people, the exodus of millions of Afghan refugees after the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Redmond says the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has never fully recovered from the mass exodus of mainly Hutu refugees from Rwanda.

"In the years after the genocide in Rwanda, you still had large numbers of Hutu refugees including some of those responsible for the genocide still in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, this caused enormous problems for UNHCR because those people were mixed in the camps along with other civilian populations, people who were basically being manipulated by this situation."

Redmond says atrocities and abuses in this region continue.

Relevance for years to come

The world is far more complicated now than when the UNHCR was created 60 years ago. Wars between nations have largely given way to civil conflicts. This change is reflected in the numbers.

Sixty years ago, the UN refugee agency had 30 staff members and a budget of $300,000 to assist about one million European refugees. It now has a staff of 7,000 and a budget of more than $3 billion. It operates in 120 countries and assists over 30 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people.

Today, humanitarian workers face many dangers. Deputy High Commissioner Alexander Aleinikoff says rebel groups often do not respect the neutrality and humanitarian nature of their work. He says UNHCR aid workers have been kidnapped and even murdered in the line of duty.

"So, in that way we are becoming…more focused on the safety of our workers. But, more importantly or as important is our ability to have access to the people we want to help, to people of concern to UNHCR. As humanitarian space shrinks, our ability to do our work shrinks with it," said Aleinikoff.

The principles of protection and asylum are under increasing threat today. More and more industrialized countries are putting up barriers to asylum, often turning away people in genuine need of international protection.

The UNHCR says this violates its essential creed. It was created to safeguard the rights of people fleeing from persecution and abuse. But, that is becoming ever more difficult to do as new challenges appear and people flee for different reasons.