On the second day of our study tour at the United Nations Headquarters, Dr. Mike McBride, introduced to us the topic of refugees and the role the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plays with regard to their return and their resettlement. Dr. McBride is a Professor of Political Science at Whittier College. Since he is also a specialist for Human Rights and the United Nations, he serves as a consultant for the Office of the UNHCR.
Our speaker started with a general overview of the mandate and the structure of the Office, which had been established by the General Assembly in 1951. It is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and implement refugee programs worldwide. The primary purpose thereby is to secure the well-being and the dignity of refugees. That means to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the choice of returning home, integrating locally, or resettling in a third country.
According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Dr. McBride defined a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. The 1951 Convention could be taken as a cornerstone of refugee protection, but our speaker explained that UNHCR had launched a series of initiatives to strengthen and extend the original mandate. The original mandate had been restricted to three years and limited to refugees in Europe after World War II. After it had achieved its primary goal, it had been extended for five-year terms respectively. In 2003, the mandate had finally been extended indefinitely. The 1967 Protocol to the Convention, removing geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention, had broadened the scope of the Convention. The mission of the UNHCR had also been geographically extended to Africa (1969) and Latin America (1984). Regarding the organizational structure, Dr. McBride highlighted that the UNHCR today employed a staff of about 6.500 people in 116 countries with 263 field offices, the Headquarter being located in Geneva. When UNHCR had begun its work in 1951, it had only had 34 staff members and a yearly budget of US-$ 300,000. Today the budget amounts for more than one billion US-$ per year. Dr. McBride mentioned a major financial problem UNHCR was facing: Receiving only 30% of its budget from the United Nations, UNHCR depended heavily on voluntary contributions from governments. Furthermore, some governments earmarked funds, what means that they only sponsor special projects which they consider important. That of course restricted the self-reliance of UNHCR, and became a problem in cases of emergency relief.
Furthermore, Dr. McBride drew our attention to the distinction that had to be made between the terms “refugees”, “stateless people”, and “internally displaced”. While both refugees and stateless people fell under the mandate of UNHCR and special help was given to them, displacement was one of the major problems of today. Internally displaced persons might have fled for the same reasons refugees had left their homes, but they remained within their home state’s territory and were therefore still subject to the laws of their own country. UNHCR could only be active when asked for by the respective government or the General Assembly. It had assisted about one million internally displaced persons in specific crises, but could not help all of the 20 to 25 millions internally displaced persons worldwide. It was for this reason that there was an international debate on how this group of people could be protected in a better way.
At the end of his briefing, Dr. McBride called our attention to the important work of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in cooperation with UNHCR. He said that around 600 NGOs carried out most important parts of the work UNHCR was responsible for. Especially in refugee camps and in cases of emergency, the work of the organizations on the ground was essential.