Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring - Appendix I to Chapter X: Brief Introduction to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1)

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created by a General Assembly resolution of the 14th December 1950 and the organization began its work on 1 January 1951. The office was initially conceived with a limited three-year mandate, and was created in parallel with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees with the objective of assisting people who became refugees prior to 1951. In 1967 a Protocol was added to the Convention removing the time limit and its provisions remain valid today. The mandate of UNHCR has been successively renewed by the General Assembly (for five-year periods) as successive refugee crises have occurred. The present mandate is due to expire at the end of 1998. The principal office of the UNHCR is in Geneva, but it maintains about 200 field offices around the world.

1. The UNHCR mandate

The mandate is contained in the UNHCR statute. The essential function of the UNHCR is to provide international protection to refugees, no longer able to benefit from the protection of their own governments, and to seek durable solutions to their problems, by facilitating the voluntary repatriation of refugees, or their integration into new national communities in a climate of safety and dignity. The office of the High Commissioner is to be "entirely non-political" and "humanitarian and social".

The statute gives the UNHCR competence to provide protection and assistance to refugees. That is, any person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . .".

The scope of UNHCR's work has broadened as the definition of a "refugee" has been extended over the years by a number of international instruments. In addition the UNHCR plays an increasing role in situations which involve internally displaced persons (IDPs). UNHCR does not, in its statute, have a mandate to provide assistance to people falling within this category, however, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General have asked the organization on numerous occasions to use its experience and resources to assist people who are in effect "refugees within their own country".

The UNHCR's role has been extended still further by an interpretation of its mandate obligation to seek "durable solutions". The agency increasingly undertakes activities in the country of origin intended to create conditions which are conducive to the return of refugees, and other activities which involve "returnee monitoring". The UNHCR's efforts in the country of origin are intended to encourage and support the return process so that it is durable.

Protection of and assistance to refugees remain, however, UNHCR's primary functions; and within this context, the organization carries out many activities. Among these tasks are the provision of food, shelter, health services, education, social welfare, and income-generation activities.

UNHCR has defined its activities as falling within four principal forms of assistance: (1) Emergency relief operations, (2) longer-term "care and maintenance" for refugees awaiting a solution to their situation, (3) local settlement programmes to help returnees integrate into the country of refuge and (4) repatriation programmes to help refugees return to their countries of origin.

2. The UNHCR role in repatriation of refugees and/or IDPs

During a repatriation operation the UNHCR will invariably have at least one office in the country of refuge and another in the country of origin. The UNHCR's activities during repatriation take place therefore on both sides of the border.

Three terms can be used to summarize the UNHCR's repatriation activities:

a. The promotion of solutions

The "promotion of solutions" is the name given to the UNHCR's efforts to address the problems at the base of a refugee movement. These activities are thus concentrated in the country of origin and are initiated before repatriation begins. The promotion of solutions involves creating a national, regional, and international dialogue to discuss the situation. It can also involve negotiations with the parties to a conflict with a view to raising the humanitarian needs of a refugee population. UNHCR considers that repatriation cannot be successful while the conditions that led to the displacement still exist.

b. The promotion of repatriation

The "promotion of repatriation" is the term which describes UNHCR's active encouragement of repatriation. Once the minimum conditions required in the country of origin are reached then UNHCR will begin to promote repatriation. UNHCR field staff may organize information campaigns to inform refugees (or IDPs) of the changed situation in their home country or region and of any peace or other relevant agreements that have been signed. Staff in displaced persons camps will help to participate in the repatriation by registering people who decide to return, providing any relevant counseling and monitoring the legal, physical, and material security of the returnees.

c. Facilitation

The term "facilitation" is used by UNHCR to indicate the assistance that it will provide to displaced people who wish to return home even when UNHCR staff do not feel that the minimum conditions necessary in the country or region of origin have been fulfilled. When refugees voluntarily decide to go home, UNHCR will often provide them with assistance (such as transport and information on conditions in the country of origin) but will not actually "promote" the return.

3. The UNHCR in the country of origin

In the country of origin, other than the efforts developed as a part of "possible solutions" the UNHCR undertakes a number of different activities:

a. Returnee monitoring

The objective of returnee monitoring by UNHCR protection officers is to ensure that returnees are successfully able to reintegrate their communities. The authority through which the UNHCR carries out returnee monitoring is derived from its mandate obligation to seek "durable solutions".

Protection officers monitoring the arrival and reintegration of returnees will focus on the

extent to which the returnees are able to enjoy respect of their human rights on the same basis as other people within the community. The principal international law standard monitored by the UNHCR will thus be that of "non-discrimination". Within this overall context of non-discrimination protection officers may place particular emphasis on the access of returnees to agricultural and residential land, which often raise problems for returnees.

b. Returnee women

During the monitoring process the UNHCR gives special attention to vulnerable groups, and to returnee women in particular. Efforts are concentrated on monitoring and providing for the needs of returnee women in terms of: women heads of household; physical safety; participation in decision-making processes; access to aid and other forms of assistance; and women victims of sexual and other violence. The UNHCR will usually have field staff specialized in providing assistance to women returnees.

c. The respect of national law

The UNHCR will often undertake activities intended to reinforce the respect of national law in the country of origin. including capacity-building of national legal institutions, training for the police and judiciary, etc. With specific regard to returnees UNHCR staff may provide legal advice and even intervene in the national legal process in favour of returnees.

d. Human rights

With regard to general human rights UNHCR staff will participate in human rights promotion and will often cooperate with other organizations that make up a human rights structure within the country of origin.

3. Cooperation with other organizations

As the number of refugees in the world has grown UNHCR has increasingly found it necessary to work with other organizations, including UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In some of the big refugee camps, for example, UNHCR apportions particular, specialized, responsibilities to a number of different NGOs. Hence, for example, medical work may be performed by one NGO, construction of latrines by another, and water supply by a third. UNHCR oversees their activities.

4. Funding

UNHCR activities are funded almost exclusively by voluntary contributions made by national governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and by individuals. The budget of the UNHCR has exceeded US $1 billion each year since 1992 (2).



1. Largely based upon UNHCR, Handbook, Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection (1996)

2. In adapting this Manual for specific human rights field operations, this Appendix should be complemented with a paragraph containing information on The UNHCR activities in the region. The operation should gather brief information on the UNHCR activities in the region, and particularly on the location of the UNHCR field offices. This information should, where possible, include the names and telephone numbers of UNHCR staff members with whom human rights officers may make contact in their respective regions. These details should be circulated to all area offices of the UN human rights field operation.


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