The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly, which created it in 1949. It began operating in 1951, and its headquarters are in Geneva. The agency currently has a national and international staff of more than 7,190 working in 123 countries. The High Commissioner is currently Mr. Antonio Guterres, who took up the position on 15 June 2005 and was reelected in April 2010. The High Commissioner is elected by the UN General Assembly to a five-year term, on nomination by the UN Secretary-General (Art. 13 of UNHCR Statute). Each year, the High Commissioner reports to the General Assembly, which usually adopts a resolution in support of UNHCR.

The Executive Committee (ExCom) is composed of representatives of the fifty-four States that are members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It meets every year in October and produces “conclusions” that establish the framework for UNHCR’s activities.

Since the ExCom (elected by the UN General Assembly) represents the community of States in the exercise of its functions, States that are not party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (known as the Refugee Convention) are hence not excluded from UNHCR. For instance, India is a member of the ExCom but is not a party to the Refugee Convention. In fact, it is acknowledged that all Member States of the UN recognize and accept UNHCR’s mandate.

The organization is divided into several departments (international protection, operational support, finances, inspection and evaluation, human resources), as well as regional divisions.


UNHCR’s goal is to guarantee the fundamental rules accepted by all States concerning the right of individuals to flee their country and seek asylum in another. To this end, it helps States face the administrative, legal, diplomatic, financial, and human problems that are caused by the refugee phenomenon.

UNHCR has several functions:

  • To promote the rights of refugees and to monitor the implementation of the Refugee Convention by its States Parties;
  • To protect refugees by working with States on the examination of administrative and legal problems related to the granting of refugee status and to the defense of the right of asylum.

UNHCR also works with governments to search for durable solutions for refugees. Being a refugee is a transitory condition for an individual. To protect such individuals or groups of individuals, States must grant them a stable and lasting legal status. To this effect, UNHCR favors various forms of voluntary repatriation, integration into the State of asylum, and third country resettlement.

  • To provide material assistance: international solidarity—in the form of interstate cooperation and support, but also with the support of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations—is necessary so as to allow for a sharing of the financial and other burdens that refugees may represent for the host State. Concretely, this support translates into assistance programs for refugees that are run by UNHCR. States contribute financially to these programs on a voluntary basis.
  • To provide “good offices” services to governments to help them solve problems resulting from population movements that are slightly outside UNHCR’s mandate and especially to provide assistance to groups outside its mandate (e.g., internally displaced persons), when requested to do so by the UN Secretary-General or the General Assembly.

Legal Basis of UNHCR’s Mandate

UNHCR’s mandate is based on:

  • the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 14 December 1950 (Resolution 428 [V]), creating UNHCR;
  • the 1951 Refugee Convention, which entered into force in 1954, currently has 145 Member States (as of April 2013), and establishes UNHCR’s mandate to monitor the implementation of the Convention (under Art. 35 of the Refugee Convention);
  • specific requests made by the UN General Assembly (Art. 9 of UNHCR Statute) or by the Secretary-General (General Assembly Resolution 48/116 of 20 December 1993), on the basis of which UNHCR’s mandate may be extended on an ad hoc basis to help States face specific refugee problems.

Means of Action

The legal mechanisms at UNHCR’s disposal vary, depending on whether a given mission comes under the framework of its Statute, the Refugee Convention, or an ad hoc extension of its mandate.

During the first years of its existence, UNHCR was not an operational agency. It did not carry out material relief actions directly for refugees—its contribution was limited to giving financial support to private organizations that carried out such tasks. Thus, its contribution to the protection of refugees focused on negotiating and obtaining legal guarantees to their benefit and facilitating administrative formalities. With the growth in the number of refugees, UNHCR turned into an operational agency that is now present in more than 110 countries.

Financial Means

UNHCR administers the funds it receives from both public and private sources for assistance to refugees. It first distributes them to the private agencies that it deems best qualified to provide such assistance. It may also, as appropriate, distribute part of the funds to public agencies. It may reject any offers that it does not consider appropriate or which cannot be utilized—for instance, because of conditions attached to the funds (Art. 10 of UNHCR Statute).

A small part of the administrative overhead costs (about 3 percent) is covered by the regular budget of the UN. The programs are financed by voluntary State contributions. UNHCR may not appeal to governments for funds without the prior approval of the General Assembly (Art. 10 of UNHCR Statute).

The program budget is divided into General Programs (33 percent) and Special Programs (66 percent). The General Program budget covers all of the UNHCR’s yearly activities, as included in the yearly ExCom budget; the yearly budget (including contingencies: 10 percent) funds voluntary repatriation emergency funds, of which the High Commissioner may spend $25 million per year, while each emergency project is limited to $8 million.

The Special Programs are all those not strictly covered by the UNHCR mandate, such as “good offices” missions, specific requests from the Secretary-General, special training, and so on. They also cover emergency missions that had not been planned and budgeted for (i.e., beyond the emergency funds described above).

Despite its humanitarian mandate, UNHCR is an organ within the UN system. This means, for instance:

  • Its actions depend on the content of agreements it negotiates with the governments concerned in each situation. They also depend on the voluntary financial contributions from States.
  • It is directly subject to the consequences of national asylum policies, which have become increasingly restrictive in recent years, and of budgetary limitations. At the beginning of 2012, there were approximately 10.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR and 26.4 million IDPs.
  • UNHCR’s activities are founded on very diverse legal bases. Some of the operations it carries out—its good office’s actions, for instance—include almost no rule governing the protection of individuals. UNHCR’s legal capacity to protect individuals must be examined closely in each of its interventions.
  • It is not UNHCR but the governments concerned that choose whether to grant refugee status to an individual or group. UNHCR monitors and participates in the proceedings, and individuals may submit their cases to it.
  • When a State refuses to grant refugee status to individuals who have fled en masse, UNHCR is responsible for ensuring that they are not forced to return ( refouler ) to a country where their lives would be threatened. UNHCR also ensures that such persons are granted temporary asylum at the very least. Such individuals are known as refugees de facto.

The High Commissioner must report on the funds once spent. Consequently, he enjoys an important margin on appreciation. Since 1992, the Special Programs have represented an average of two thirds of the total budget. The revised budget for 2012 was $4.3 billion, of which $81 million come from the UN regular budget.

Relations with NGOs

UNHCR’s primary role is not an operational one. In addition to its function as legal counsel (pressuring and assisting governments in their admission of refugees), UNHCR has undertaken increasingly concrete assistance and protection operations for refugees, often in partnership with NGOs. UNHCR can sign operational partnership contracts with NGOs (Arts. 8 and 10 of UNHCR statute) so as to coordinate the funding of such actions.

NGOs thus defend the rights of refugees through their assistance activities, and they therefore carry a share of the responsibilities in protecting these populations. Through their very presence at the refugees’ side, NGOs are in a privileged position to evaluate, for instance, the refugees’ physical safety, the quality of assistance they receive, and the different pressures they face in making certain decisions—namely, in cases of repatriation—and to report this to UNHCR.

AsylumBoat peopleCampsInternally displaced personsNGOsProtectionRefoulement(forced return) and expulsionRefugeesReliefRepatriationStateless persons


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For Additional Information: Crisp, Jeff. Mind the Gap! UNHCR, Humanitarian Assistance and the Development Process . UNHRC Working Paper No. 43, 2001. Available at .

Forsythe, David. UNHCR’s Mandate: The Politics of Being Nonpolitical . UNHCR Working Paper No. 33, 2001. Available at .

UNHCR. Global Report 2004 . Available at .

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