■ 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.
III. 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 137 countries. By mid-2022, the number of persons of concern to UNHCR had grown to 103 million, the highest number on record.
1. Legal Means Provided by UNHCR’s Statute
UNHCR has a double mission: it is accountable to both States and individual refugees.
a. UNHCR’s Mission with Regard to States
It must ensure and coordinate States’ defence of the right of asylum and their financial burden-sharing aimed at alleviating the problems of refugees.
Resolution 428 (V), adopted by the UNGA on 14 December 1950, established UNHCR’s Statute and set forth the commitments undertaken by governments to cooperate with the organization on refugee issues. Governments are invited to:
•participate in the drafting of international conventions relating to the protection of refugees, ratify them, and adopt the appropriate measures to implement them;
•implement measures aimed at improving the situation of refugees and reducing the number of those who require protection, by concluding special agreements with UNHCR;
•encourage the admission of refugees onto their territory, without excluding those in the most destitute categories;
•support the efforts of UNHCR to assist in the voluntary repatriation of refugees;
•favour the integration of refugees within new national communities, namely by facilitating their naturalization;
•deliver travel and other documents that would normally be provided by the refugees’ national authorities;
•authorize refugees to transfer their assets, especially those necessary for their resettlement;
•provide UNHCR with information concerning the number and conditions of refugees in their territories and the laws and regulations concerning them.
b. UNHCR’s Mission with Regard to the Protection of Refugees
Article 8 of UNHCR’s Statute states that “the High Commissioner shall provide for the protection of refugees falling under the competence of his Office.” Originally, UNHCR’s mandate only extended to individuals who met the definition of a refugee contained in the Statute and repeated in the 1951 Refugee Convention (detailed under the entry on ➔ Refugees ). It was progressively expanded to include other persons (in particular, war refugees) by successive UNGA resolutions. The organization’s mandate over internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains ad hoc, meaning that it is subject to a vote by the UNGA, or at the request of the Secretary-General, and to the approval of States concerned.
UNHCR can ensure the protection of refugees by:
- Promoting the conclusion and ratification of international conventions for the protection of refugees, supervising their application and proposing amendments thereto;
- promoting through special agreements with governments the execution of any measures calculated to improve the situation of refugees and to reduce the number requiring protection;
- assisting governmental and private efforts to promote voluntary repatriation or assimilation within new national communities;
- promoting the admission of refugees, not excluding those in the most destitute categories, to the territories of States;
- endeavouring to obtain permission for refugees to transfer their assets and especially those necessary for their resettlement;
- obtaining from governments information concerning the number and conditions of refugees in their territories and the laws and regulations concerning them;
- keeping in close touch with the governments and inter-governmental organizations concerned;
- establishing contact in such manner as it may think best with private organizations dealing with refugee questions;
- facilitating the coordination of the efforts of private organizations concerned with the welfare of refugees. (art. 8 of UNHCR Statute)
2. Legal Means Provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention
UNHCR’s mandate is limited to individuals who meet the definition of refugees set forth by the Refugee Convention. “The High Contracting Parties […] [note] that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is charged with the task of supervising international conventions providing for the protection of refugees, and recogniz[e] that the effective coordination of measures taken to deal with this problem will depend on the cooperation of States with the High Commissioner.” (Preamble, para. 6).
UNHCR is entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring the application and implementation of the Convention’s provisions. States undertake to cooperate with UNHCR and to provide it with all the necessary information and statistical data, especially concerning refugees, the implementation of the Convention, and any other laws enacted that relate to refugees (art. 35 of Refugee Convention).
The Convention does not offer UNHCR any additional means of action to those conferred by its Statute. It does mention, however, that national authorities, or “an international authority” (UNHCR), are under the obligation to issue to refugees any administrative documents that they can no longer obtain from their own national authorities but that are indispensable for the exercise of their individual rights. This function is crucial in order to lift administrative obstacles that refugees often face. These documents include identification papers or temporary travel documents (art. 25 of Refugee Convention).
3. Legal Means Provided by the UNGA
The UNGA may request, on a case-by-case basis, that UNHCR take charge of specific refugee problems that do not come under the strict definitions established by the Refugee Convention and UNHCR’s Statute (issues concerning internally displaced persons, for instance). In such situations, UNHCR has no means of action beyond those negotiated and included in the bilateral or trilateral agreements signed with the governments of the concerned States.
The UNGA has already broadened the organization’s mandate in three different directions, with the aim of:
- providing material assistance to refugees, and therefore of making an appeal for funds (Resolution 538B of 1952);
- using its “good offices” in case of large-scale flows of people seeking asylum (Resolution 1388 of 1959); and
- extending its activities to cover the case of internally displaced persons (Resolution 2958 of 1972).
The mandate of UNHCR was several times broadened to cover the situation of internally displaced populations (IDPs). However, UNHCR failed to protect these populations in various instances, such as in the former Yugoslavia or in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Indeed, UNHCR has a mandate to assist this population, but it has no legal mandate that enables it to ensure a proper protection of IDPs. In 2002, UNHCR decided to focus its action on its core mandate—namely, refugees—therefore leaving further initiatives regarding IDPs to the Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2005, the United Nations reformed its humanitarian action framework.
Since September 2005, UNHCR is part of the global approach set up by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), under the authority of the Secretary-General of the UN and the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). The purpose of this reform is to set up a system that coordinates UN agencies, from a financial and operational point of view, and that makes sure all the aspects of relief actions are covered. Within this coordination system, UNHCR is the lead agency for camps management and protection of IDPs in connection with a situation of armed conflict. This is not a truly protective mandate from a legal point of view; rather, UNHCR is in charge of assessing the situation, defining a strategy, and setting up partnerships with relevant actors so that needs for protection are taken into account. This experimental system started functioning in January 2006 in three pilot countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Uganda. The High Commissioner for Refugees explained that UNHCR’s involvement with IDPs is conditioned on the request of the Humanitarian Coordinator and on the consent of the country itself. He also insisted that UNHCR’s involvement with IDPs should not impinge on the right of affected populations to seek and enjoy asylum, and that funding intended for the work with refugees should not be diverted. UNHCR’s initiative on internal displacement for the period 2020-2021 pledged to further concretized its engagement and support towards IDPs in nine target operations (Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Colombia) with emergency preparedness, response and solutions-oriented activities. ➔ Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs
4. Legal Means Provided by the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees
The GCR was adopted by States under the auspices of the UNGA in 2018 (A/RES/73/151) and it is a not a legally binding document. However, it set a framework improving State cooperation toward more predictable and equitable responsibility and burden sharing in the management of refugees. It provides blueprint for governments, international organisations and other stakeholders to ensure that host communities and refugees get the support they need. The UNHCR is given a central role in the implementation, follow up and review of this new international agreement. The UNHCR is notably tasked to develop a Comprehensive refugee response framework (CRRF), foster pledge making and voluntary funding through innovative and inclusive partnership approach; report on progress through accurate data related to the 15 indicators listed in GCR indicator framework , organise and co-chair the periodic meetings of the Global Refugee Forum and provide annual reporting to the UNGA regarding advancement and shortfalls encountered in the implementation of the GCR and in the management of refugees’ situation.
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 https://www.unhcr.org/research/working/3b309dd07/mind-gap-unhcr-humanitarian-assistance-development-process-jeff-crisp.html
Forsythe, David. UNHCR’s Mandate: The Politics of Being Nonpolitical . UNHCR Working Paper No. 33, 2001. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/research/working/3ae6a0d08/unhcrs-mandate-politics-non-political-david-forsythe.html.
**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 https://reporting.unhcr.org/globalreport2021/pdf
UNHCR’s initiative on internal displacement 2020 – 2021 . Available at https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Initiative%20on%20Internal%20Displacement%202020-2021.pdf
Mid-Year trends 2022 , Available at https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/635a578f4/mid-year-trends-2022
Refugee data finders, Key indicators , 2022. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/
The global compact on refugees . New York, 2018. Available at https://www.unhcr.org/5c658aed4
The State of the World’s Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Available at http://www.unhcr.ch/pubs/sowr2000//sowr2000toc.htm