Achievements and Role of the UNHCR Since 1990

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Role of the UNHCR

Currently, the international community is extremely worried about the increasing problem of refugees, illegal migration, and asylum-seeking, which are evident all over the world and have reached unprecedented proportions in the European Union. Refugees from war-torn countries like Syria flee from poverty, violence, repercussions, and death, while thousands of others seek ways to escape some unfavorable conditions of life in their relatively peaceful countries that may, in turn, be marked by political repressions, high unemployment, lack of opportunities for decent life, and the like. Irrespective of the reason, all these individuals are subject to countless threats and hazards as they attempt to leave their home countries and move to the countries of their destination to apply for refugee status there. Fearing rejection, many of them resort to illegal means and fill the ranks of illegal immigrants, who are among the most vulnerable and least protected groups of the population. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide live without any citizenship at all, yet the problems and obstacles that they encounter are often overlooked in the discourse of international relations field, which seems to be more concerned with effective solutions of the problem of refugees who pose the most challenges to potential host countries. Besides, internally displaced persons represent one more group of the population that fails to enjoy proper support and protection of their state and often depend on international aid organizations and sponsors who assist them in fulfilling basic needs. All the above-mentioned groups of the population would even face a worse situation and lack the opportunities for legal protection, humanitarian aid, and support if the UN had not established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950. The UNHCR has existed and functioned for more than half a century today, and its activities have significantly evolved over the years, even though its core mandate has remained the same. The world has drastically changed, but the problem of refugees has not been solved and completely eliminated as the UN General Assembly hoped when establishing the dedicated office to address this issue. On the contrary, nowadays, the UNHCR has to deal with a wider range of problems than ever before, which have also expanded in terms of their scope and severity. Nonetheless, achievements of the UNHCR and its prominent role in the international relations field have become especially evident and increased in significance since the 1990s when the organizations had to face the new world reality and respond respectively.

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Brief Overview of the Current Activities and Mandate of the UNHCR

The UNHCR or the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1950 by the UN General Assembly with the purpose of leading and coordinating international action aimed at protecting refugees and resolving their problems all over the world (UNHCR). The UNHCR positions itself as “a global humanitarian organization of humble origins” (UNHCR). The matter is that initially it was created to solve the problem of refugees in Europe after the Second World War, and its mandate was envisioned to last for three years, yet the scope of the problem appeared to be so extensive that the organization extended its operation for more than 60 years. Currently, the main purpose of the UNHCR is to ensure the well-being and protection of the rights of refugees worldwide, as well as assist internally displaced persons, stateless people, and asylum seekers (UNHCR). Therefore, according to the mandate that has remained largely unchanged since the time of the UNHCR’s establishment, the organisation strives to accomplish the above goal by cooperating directly with refugees, states, including both home and host states, and various NGOs so that refugees can safely seek and find asylum, and enjoy the option of voluntary return to their motherland. The organization is also aimed at ensuring that refugees can successfully integrate into a host country or move to another country in case they express the desire to do so. The UNHCR “has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives” over the decades and continues doing so (UNHCR). Currently, the agency employs 9,300 people in 123 countries, all of whom are committed to solving the problems of refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless people, and those in a dire need of humanitarian aid (UNHCR). Even though the agency itself considers such an extension of the mandate to include all the above-mentioned groups of the population besides the initially designated refugees, some scholars and public figures claim that it has diverted the agency from effectively fulfilling its primary mission.

The present High Commissioner of the UNHCR is Antonio Guterres who was appointed the 10th High Commissioner on June 15, 2015 (UNHCR). In the past, the agency conducted its operations from a single office in Europe, but the branch and regional offices of the UNHCR have been established in more than 100 countries and continue expanding in Europe, Asia, Americas, and Africa along with the expansion of the coverage of activities and their scope. Besides, there exist more than 340 remote field offices and sub-offices that operate on behalf of the UNHCR (UNHCR). The total number of individuals assisted by the organization exceeds 55 million, while more than 5 million refugees are under the care of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNHCR). The number of refugees, internally displaced persons, and stateless people are forecast to increase further because of the current conflicts raging in different parts of the world and affecting millions of people, which is likely to call for further expansion of the UNHCR. Some of the core activities performed by the agency are related to protection, assistance, emergency response, durable solutions, environment and alternatives to camps (UNHCR). Therefore, the protection of refugees and stateless people is the core of the agency’s mandate. In turn, assistance envisions the provision of life-saving aid, healthcare services, shelter, education, water and satisfaction of other basic needs of the targeted population. In terms of environment, the UNHCR strives to develop means of minimizing the influence of its operations and activities on the environment, as well as encouraging sustainability in its partners’ activities (UNHCR). Concerning the emergency response, the UNHCR is in a unique position of responding effectively and efficiently to emergency situations in different parts of the world with a view to assisting local populations and potential refugees. Besides, the UNHCR emphasizes the value of durable solutions to all issues that it has to deal with and considers resettlement, local integration, and voluntary repatriation to be the most preferred and durable solutions to refugee problems (UNCHR). Finally, the agency’s leadership is convinced that camps do not constitute a viable solution to the problem of refugees, even though they are sometimes the only means of ensuring that displaced people have shelter and protection (UNHCR). Therefore, camps should be a temporary measure employed in exceptional cases when all other possible alternatives are not accessible.

As mentioned above, the UNHCR helps several categories of people, even though initially its core mandate was aimed at assisting only refugees. The notion of refugees has been defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention that governs activities of the UNHCR and considers a refugee to be a person who is outside one’s country of nationality or residence and fears persecution for some justified reason due to religion, nationality, ethnicity, race, political views or other causes (UNHCR 10). The term also encompasses individuals who escape conflicts, wars, and violence (UNHCR 10). Asylum seekers are individuals who have applied for receiving refugee status and wait for a decision on this application (UNHCR 10). Migrants represent the broadest and most numerous group of people, not all of whom fall under the mandate of the UNHCR and are eligible for assistance rendered by the agency. The term stands for any person moving to a foreign country for a period of minimum a year for various reasons and often requiring special assistance in case they become migrants because of unfavorable conditions in their home countries. Internally displaced people are often confused with refugees, but the main difference is that the former remain in their home country despite being forced to leave their homes due to military conflicts, wars, persecution, natural disasters and other unfavorable circumstances (UNHCR). Another quantitative group of people falling under the scope of the UNHCR’s activities includes stateless persons, i.e. persons who are not nationals of any state, de jure stateless, or “possibly someone who does not enjoy fundamental rights enjoyed by other nationals in their home state (de facto stateless)” (UNHCR). The needs and issues of these people are often overlooked, but stateless persons belong to the most vulnerable groups of the population because they are regarded as people who have never existed and thus may have no rights. These several groups are the target population in the overwhelming majority of the UNHCR’s activities.

As mentioned above, the core mandate of the agency envisions the solution of problems and protection of refugees, yet the mandate has been necessarily expanded because of the changing environment in which the agency functions (UNHCR 3). Nonetheless, the 1951 UN Refugees Convention remains a key document governing activities of the agency as it provides general definitions and recognizes the core rights of refugees, as well as a need to assist refugees with a solution to their problems (UNHCR 2). In terms of the mandate, the organization can no longer accomplish its core activities only as the scale of the UNHCR’s operations has had to be expanded. Besides, the range of activities has increased as well and moved from the facilitation of resettlement of refugees to a much wider range of activities targeting all the aforementioned groups of the population. With respect to the latter, the range of beneficiaries has also increased. Despite the claims to the contrary, the UNHCR’s leadership supposes that the expansion of the agency’s role complies with its Statute. Therefore, Article 1 stipulates that the UNHCR should seek “permanent solutions for the problem of refugees”, and Article 9 claims that the agency “shall engage in such additional activities…as the General Assembly may determine”, which is why its current activities encompassing a much wider range of groups and activities do not breach the Statute (UNHCR 3). The shift in the mandate is evident in the way how activities of the agency are described by stakeholders. Therefore, its early activities were usually described “as having been reactive, exile-oriented and refugee-specific”, while its activities since the 1990s have been described as “proactive, homeland-oriented and holistic” (UNHCR 4). The agency itself supposes that this shift is among its greatest achievements irrespective of any statements to the contrary.

Brief Overview of the History of the UNHCR

Prior to focusing on the achievements and role of the UNHCR in the field of international relations, it seems reasonable to provide a brief overview of the agency’s history with a view to better comprehending its recent history and challenges lying ahead. Therefore, as mentioned above, the organization was founded by the UN General Assembly on December 14 in 1950 in order to solve the problem of refugees in Europe (UNHCR). The matter is that Europe witnessed severe problems with refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the newly created agency with about 30 employees was tasked with solving the problem of about 400,000 refugees existing at the time in Europe (UNHCR). Since the UN General Assembly was optimistic about the potential for solving the existing problem, the UNHCR’s mandate was envisioned to last three years. However, the reality proved to be more complicated, and the agency has already existed for more than 60 years and is highly likely to exist for many decades to come.

Just as in the past, the current activities of the UNHCR are regulated by the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees adopted on July 28 of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol (UNHCR). Under these documents, the agency has become a leading international organization with authority and responsibility to provide protection and assistance to refugees, as well as “inter alia by supervising the application of this international legal regime” (Turk 135). Therefore, the UNHCR has cooperated with and supervised activities of various NGOs and state bodies tasked with addressing issues relating to refugees. The first serious challenge faced by the agency took place in 1956 when Europe was flooded by refugees from Hungary as a result of Soviet persecution (UNHCR). Afterward, it was of pivotal importance during the decolonization of Africa in the 1960s, as well as during displacement crises occurring in subsequent decades in Latin America and Asia. The UNHCR’s importance increased with years not only in Europe but also in the whole world. Its achievements were recognized when it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and then in 1981 (UNHCR). The first award was granted for the organization’s achievements in solving problems of refugees in Europe, while the second one recognized the international role of the agency in this respect. In addition to the increasing number of employees and offices mentioned above, funding of the agency has significantly grown as well: from $300,000 in 1950 to $7 billion in 2015 (UNHCR). However, it should be noted that the organization largely remained only one of the international actors till the 1990s, even suffering from a sharp decrease in sponsorship in the late 1980s, which prompted talks about the disbandment of the agency. The end of the Cold War and the new reality of international affairs in the early 1990s brought significant changes in the role of the UNHCR. Its rise to prominence occurred when it took leadership positions in crises in Iraq, the Balkans, Rwanda and other notorious crises of the past two decades. They have turned the UNHCR into a leading international humanitarian aid organization tasked with ensuring the well-being and protection of refugees, including both existing and potential ones, as well as internally displaced persons, stateless persons and other vulnerable groups of the population during the crises. Undeniably, its mandate has been expanded in terms of the range of activities and population groups that it targets. However, as High Commissioner Guterres has noted, “for an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution” (UNHCR 16). The UNHCR is uniquely equipped to provide such a humanitarian response, and its numerous achievements since the 1990s are evident.

Achievements and Role of the UNHCR since the 1990s

Although it is an undeniable fact that the UNHCR had played an important role in solving the refugee problem in Europe and other regions before the 1990s, its achievements since the 1990s may be deemed especially remarkable. The main reason for such a view consists of the change in external circumstances and in the status of the agency. Before the 1990s, the UNHCR had been just one of the organizations with limited financial and other resources and limited capacities of solving problems that it had been tasked with. In turn, the end of the Cold War and the virtually simultaneous eruption of a number of international crises, as well as increasing media coverage of humanitarian crises and activities and increasing sponsorship, turned the UNHCR into a global actor of the international relations field.

The radical change in the nature of activities mentioned above occurred under the leadership of Sadako Ogata who had a new vision for the UNHCR of becoming an active participant of international relations and taking a proactive position to all kinds of humanitarian crises, as well as fostering closer relations with various NGOs (Hammerstad 179). Therefore, one of the greatest achievements of the early 1990s is the solution to an internal crisis of the UNHCR and its ability to remain relevant in the post-Cold War environment. This goal was achieved primarily thanks to the role that the agency played when the UNHCR was asked to “take on the lead humanitarian role in the fast-unfolding refugee crisis in the mountainous regions of Iraqi Kurdistan” (Hammerstad 179). It was a novel role for the agency as it was tasked with providing humanitarian aid and relief during the period of war and had to rely for that purpose on military forces and warring factions, as well as develop ways to effectively protect the vulnerable population. However, the UNHCR managed to successfully achieve this goal by combining “political solutions and humanitarian activities” (Hammerstad 179). This crisis was the first time when the UNHCR strayed away from its mandate of assisting refugees only, without taking any sides, and developed a political agenda. Some individuals like the former High Commissioner consider this decision to be the only right one as the UNHCR managed to avert deaths of thousands of people and create safe havens within the country for the sake of ensuring the well-being of the local population. Besides, no agency can retain complete objectivity and have beneficial relations with all stakeholders of a conflict. In turn, this achievement relating to the breakthrough in the agency’s role is frequently criticized, and critics claim that the UNHCR has to remain an unbiased third party dealing with refugee issues without interfering with the conflict in any way. Nonetheless, such an approach seems to limit the capacities of the UNHCR that attempt to remain objective and assist all the needy in crises.

Another achievement of the UNHCR that arose during the crisis in northern Iraq and retained until nowadays concerns its effective use of the media that highlight humanitarian crises, military conflicts, and other related issues in detail. Thanks to the media attention to the Gulf War and crisis in northern Iraq, foreign states could not pretend that it was a local issue that they had no interest in (Wheeler 148). In turn, this encouraged sponsorship of the UNHCR’s activities, which averted the threat of its bankruptcy. In fact, “the role of the media and the public sympathy and outrage their reporting generated were to be important in most, if not all, major humanitarian operations since the end of the Cold War” (Hammerstad 182). The humanitarian response mission led by the UNHCR is usually considered to be a success and a major achievement of the agency. However, it would have been impossible without the support of and cooperation with the military forces of the coalition (Hammerstad 182). The crisis taught the UNHCR how to cooperate with the military as the agency organized refugees and cooperated with their leaders, while the military provided all logistics (Hammerstad 182). The same model of cooperation was subsequently used in other campaigns, for instance, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Besides, the UNHCR managed to succeed thanks to foreign support, which was caused by the responsibility of Western countries, the USA in particular, for supporting one side of the conflict. As Helton (2002) said about the humanitarian operations in Iraq in the 1990s, which could apply to virtually any humanitarian crisis of the subsequent years, “Necessity, guilt, and revenge can be powerful motivations for a protective refugee policy” (Helton 175). Overall, the Iraqi crisis allowed the UNHCR to emerge as an influential global actor that led other organizations and the military during the humanitarian aid operation and successfully averted a refugee crisis in the country.

After the Iraq operation, the UNHCR seemed to be convinced that “the post-Cold War environment offered unprecedented opportunities to find pragmatic solutions to refugee emergencies that provided both adequate protection and assistance to the displaced and catered to the interest of major powers and host states” (Hammerstad 192). Therefore, the UNHCR was appointed the lead agency in the humanitarian operation in the former Yugoslavia torn by the civil war. During this operation, the UNHCR proved that it could play the role of the “world’s foremost humanitarian organization” and become “a global security actor” (Hammerstad 192). Overall, the UNHCR’s activities in former Yugoslavia proved to be a success and a significant achievement as the agency’s employees remained in the war-torn parts of the country during active military operations when all other international humanitarian organizations decided to leave the region. Besides, it managed to negotiate with all sides of the conflict in order to ensure the safety of vulnerable groups of the population. The role in the international relations field played by the UNHCR increased in prominence during the Balkan crisis as the international community could not agree on the best way of how to end the conflict, and support of the humanitarian relief operation led by the agency seemed to be the only point of consensus (UNHCR 10). As coordinator of the UNHCR’s humanitarian relief operation in the former Yugoslavia said in 1993, “it is not simply that the UN’s humanitarian efforts have become politicized; it is rather that we have been transformed into the only manifestation of international political will” (UNHCR 10). The same politicization of the UNHCR’s activities was evident during subsequent operations, for instance, in Rwanda or in Iraq. Nonetheless, it should be considered as a sort of achievement as it allows the agency to have more influence in the international relations domain and within the political sphere, which in turn has a positive impact on the implementation of various initiatives and policies developed by the UNHCR.

Another essential achievement of the UNHCR since the 1990s is its expansion of the range of activities and scope, as well as population groups targeted by the former, which has been mentioned above. Even though the original mandate envisioned assistance to refugees only, the world has changed, and the UNHCR’s inclusion of other groups in need of help, like stateless persons or internally displaced persons, testifies to the agency’s ability to adapt to the changing environment. Moreover, the agency recognizes the impact of globalization on issues that it deals with, which means that the organization is capable of adequately reacting to the external circumstances and responding respectively. This flexibility and adaptability, which is evident in the UNHCR since the 1990s, stands in contrast with its past, rather static behavior, which is another achievement of the agency under consideration. As mentioned above, the UNHCR also cooperates with and supervises activities of NGOs relating to the work with refugees. This aspect of the agency’s activities is another achievement as the processes of supervision and cooperation have been adapted with account for the current environment and have significantly evolved over the decades. For instance, the agency together with NGOs has managed to adequately address the issue of urban refugees by focusing on the problem of the so-called “phenomenon of invisible refugees”, registration, assistance and other pertinent problems (Ward 17).

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Currently, the agency enjoys an annual budget of more than $7 billion and assists more than 55 million refugees worldwide. Since the 1990s, the UNHCR has acquired the status of a global humanitarian relief organization and humanitarian crisis manager, as well as a global security actor. Nonetheless, the number of refugees is highly likely to increase in the nearest future, and the current situation in Europe is extremely alarming. Unless the UNHCR manages to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and develop ways how to help all needy refugees, internally displaced persons and other stakeholders of current conflicts, the problem of refugees has the potential of reaching an unprecedented level and significantly impacting the international community. For this reason, the UNHCR has to use its past achievements to develop ways of solving the current refugee crisis in the most effective and efficient way.


The above discussion testifies to the fact that the UNHCR is an extremely valuable and effective organization of the present times that has existed since the middle of the 20th century and which prominence as an international relations actor has been increasing since the 1990s. The matter is that the UNHCR has been truly effective in dealing with various humanitarian crises, but it is unable to eliminate the problem of refugees. In fact, the contemporary world conditions make it impossible to accomplish this goal as there are many conflicts waged in the world that cannot be peacefully resolved overnight. A vivid example of the conflict that gives rise to the unprecedented number of refugees seeking asylum primarily in European countries is the city was in Syria. The UNHCR seems to do everything within its powers to address the refugee problem in a way that would be the most beneficial for all stakeholders. Nonetheless, it is frequently subjected to criticism. One of the causes of criticism is the fact that the organization has essentially strayed away from its original purpose of helping refugees only. The scope of its operations and the range of population groups targeted have significantly increased, yet it should be viewed as an achievement rather than the failure of the agency. This fact proves that the UNHCR is able to evolve just like it has evolved from a tiny local organization to an international humanitarian relief agency with extensive positive experience and a prominent role in the field of international relations. Due to the topicality of issues with which the agency deals on a constant basis, it is to remain an integral part of the international reality. However, the question of whether it will manage to demonstrate outstanding achievements in the future depends largely on the agency’s activities and readiness to reform itself with account for the ever-changing conditions of the external environment.

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