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 (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), 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 18,879 of whom nearly 91 per cent are based in the field. The High Commissioner is currently Mr. Filippo Grandi, who took up the position on 1 January 2016. The High Commissioner was elected by the UNGA for a five-year term and has been re-elected to serve until 31 December 2025, on nomination by the UN Secretary-General (Art. 13 of UNHCR Statute). Each year, the High Commissioner reports to the UNGA, which usually adopts a resolution in support of UNHCR.

The Executive Committee (ExCom) is composed of representatives of the 54 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 UNGA) 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 defence 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 favours 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 (NGOs)—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 specially 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 UNGA.

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 UNGA on 14 December 1950 (Resolution 428 [V]), creating UNHCR;

•the 1951 Refugee Convention, which entered into force in 1954, currently has 146 Member States (as of April 2023), and establishes UNHCR’s mandate to monitor the implementation of the Convention (under Art. 35 of the Refugee Convention);

•specific requests made by the UNGA (Art. 9 of UNHCR Statute) or by the Secretary-General (UNGA 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.

•the 2018 Global compact on Refugees gives UNHCR a leading role toward its implementation, follow up and review notably through development of a Comprehensive refugee response framework (CRRF), the monitoring and reporting on the 15 indicators of Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) progress; innovative partnership and pledge approach, the periodic meetings of the Global Refugee Forum and the annual reporting to the UNGA.


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 137 countries. By mid-2022, the number of persons of concern to UNHCR had grown to 103 million, the highest number on record.

5. 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 1 percent) is covered by the regular budget of the UN. The programs are financed up to 85 per cent by voluntary contributions of States and the European Union while 3 per cent comes from other inter-governmental organizations and pooled funding mechanisms and 11 per cent from the private sector including foundations, corporations, and the public. UNHCR may not appeal to governments for funds without the prior approval of the UNGA (art. 10 of UNHCR Statute).

The global program budget is divided into four pillars: Global refugee program, Global statelessness program, Global reintegration projects and Global IDP projects. In 2021, largest component of the budget for programmed activities was afforded to pillar 1 (Refugee program) with 76.2 percent. UNHCR global data recorded 103 million of persons forcibly displaced in 2022. Among these persons of concerns for UNHCR, 32.5 million were refugees, 4.9 million asylum seekers, 53.2 million were IDPs and the remainder were in need of international protection.

According to UNHCR’s 2022 Global planning figures, 72 per cent of these people of concern comes from only five countries: the Syrian Arab republic, Venezuela, Ukraine, Afghanistan and South Sudan. The largest requirements were in the Americas for 25 per cent and the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region for 16 per cent equalled with the Middle East and North Africa region for also 16 per cent.

☞ 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 over the years, and of budgetary limitations. In 2021, there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people of concern to UNHCR worldwide, of whom 21.3 million were refugees and 53.2 million were 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. The revised budget for 2023 was $10.211 billion USD, of which $42.2 million came from the UN regular budget.

5. 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.



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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

**McAdam, Jane, “The Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration: A New Era for International Protection?”, International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 30, Issue 4, December 2018, Pages 571–574.


UNHCR, Global Report 2021 . Available at

UNHCR’s initiative on internal displacement 2020 – 2021 . Available at

Mid-Year trends 2022 , Available at

Refugee data finders, Key indicators , 2022. Available at

The global compact on refugees . New York, 2018. Available at

The State of the World’s Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Available at

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