The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1950, one of several attempts by the international community during the 20th century to protect refugees and find solutions for them. The League of Nations, the forerunner of the U.N., had named Norwegian scientist and explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the post of High Commissioner as early as 1921. Several new organizations were created during and after World War II: the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the International Refugee Organization and, subsequently, UNHCR.
Initially, the Office was given a three-year mandate to repatriate and resettle some 1.2 million European refugees left homeless by World War II . But as refugee crises proliferated, its mandate was extended every five years. In December 2003, the U.N. General Assembly decided to remove the time limitation on UNHCR's mandate until the refugee problem is solved. Today, UNHCR is one of the world's principal humanitarian agencies, with 6,300 personnel assisting 32.9 million people in some 110 countries. Since its inception, the agency has helped more than 50 million people, earning two Nobel Peace Prizes in 1954 and 1981.
UNHCR's programme, which includes activities related to protection, assistance and finding durable solutions, and its budget are approved by its governing body: an Executive Committee of 76 member states which meets annually in Geneva. The Executive Committee delegated authority to a Standing Committee, which meets three times a year. The High Commissioner reports orally to the Economic and Social Council on coordination aspects of the work of the Office, and submits a written annual report to the General Assembly on the overall work of UNHCR.
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as people who are outside their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and who cannot, or are unwilling to return to their country for fear of persecution. As a humanitarian, non-political organization, UNHCR has two basic and closely related aims - to protect refugees and to seek ways to help them restart their lives in a normal environment. As at 1 January 2008, 147 States had signed the Refugee Convention and/or its Protocol.
International protection for people who cannot avail themselves of the protection of their own country is the cornerstone of the agency's work. In practice this means ensuring respect for a refugee's basic human rights and ensuring that no person will be returned involuntarily to a country where he or she has reason to fear persecution - a process known as refoulement.
UNHCR promotes international refugee agreements and monitors government compliance with international refugee law. Its staff work in a variety of locations ranging from capital cities to remote camps and border areas. They seek to provide protection and assistance, as well as to minimize the threat of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, which many refugees are subject to, even in countries of asylum.
The organization seeks long-term or durable solutions by helping refugees repatriate to their homeland if conditions permit, or by helping them to integrate in the country of asylum or to resettle in third countries.