A volunteer life-guard helps a young girl out of the sea after the boat she used along with her family and other Afghan refugees to cross part of the Aegean from the coast of Turkey to Lesbos towards the end of 2015 crashed on a rock off the island’s coast[…]
The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018. Among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
An agency to help Refugees
People fleeing persecution and conflict have been granted asylum in foreign lands for thousands of years. The UN agency that helps refugees is UNHCR (also known as the UN Refugee Agency), which emerged in the wake of World War II to help Europeans displaced by that conflict.
UNHCR was established on December 14, 1950 by the UN General Assembly with a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband. The following year, on July 28, the legal foundation of helping refugees and the basic statute guiding UNHCR’s work, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, was adopted. So instead of ending its work after three years, UNHCR has been working ever since to help refugees.
In the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa produced the first of that continent’s numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention. Over the following two decades, UNHCR had to help with displacement crises in Asia and Latin America. By the end of the century there were fresh refugee problems in Africa and, turning full circle, new waves of refugees in Europe from the series of wars in the Balkans.
In a world where nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every 2 seconds as a result of conflict or persecution, the work of UNHCR is more important than ever before.
UNHCR in the field
The UN Refugee Agency has its Headquarters in Geneva, but about 89 per cent of staff are in the field. Today, a staff of more than 9,700 people in 126 countries provides protection and assistance to nearly 59 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless people. The largest portion of UNHCR staff are based in countries in Asia and Africa, the continents that both host and generate the most refugees and internally displaced people. Many are in isolated locations where staff work in difficult – and often dangerous – conditions. Among the biggest UNHCR operations are Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), was mandated by the UN General Assembly in 1949 to provide services to registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. UNRWA is a direct service provider, delivering primary and secondary education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency aid to Palestine refugees, now numbering 5.4 million, in the Agency’s five mandated areas of operation: the Gaza Strip, West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The World Bank has described UNRWA’s education system for 530,000 boys and girls as a “global public good”. UNRWA is an efficient and well-run Agency of the United Nations. It has carried out major reforms and savings, amounting to some $300 M since 2015.