The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations (UN) to promote and protect refugees and to coordinate action to resolve refugee problems. UNHCR helps refugees to find asylum and to create conditions to ensure that the human rights of refugees are protected.
We had the great chance of having a briefing by Mr. Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, Senior Policy Advisor of UNHCR office in New York. Mr. Vargas Llosa has been working for the UN for many years. His first mission had been in Afghanistan, later on he worked for the UN in Geneva, where he specialized on Columbian refugees. Since 2006, he is working at the UN Headquarter in New York. Mr. Vargas Llosa briefed us about the background of UNHCR, activities undertaken in the field of refugees and last but not least about major challenges ahead.
A refugee, explained Mr. Vargas Llosa, was a person who had fled from his home because he or she had feared persecution. This person believes that he/she is not safe in the state he/she had been living in and therefore searches protection in another country, or, in the case of internally displaced persons, in a different part of the country. Refugees fear persecution for various reasons, e.g. ethnical, social, religious, or political.
After the First World War, there had been one million refugees, today more than 20 million people are considered refugees. However, persons leaving their country for economic reasons were not entitled to the status ‘refugee’, as Mr. Vargas Llosa stated. As the two groups leave their homes for completely different motivations they thus have a different legal status. An economic migrant normally leaves his/her country in search of a better life abroad. He/she has the possibility to return to his/her state of origin and to receive the protection of his/her government. In the case of refugees, this is not possible.
In 1947, the UN had created the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to deal with matters affecting displaced persons, which was replaced by UNHCR in 1951. Today, the UN has over 6000 international and local staff in over 100 countries dealing with the problem of human displacement. The budget of UNHCR is mainly based on voluntary contributions by member states and comprises 900 million US$ per year, with only 20 million US$ from the regular UN budget.
The UN provides three types of assistance to refugees: First, it offers legal support. UNHCR works with governments to ensure that the rights of asylum seekers are respected. While the International Refugee Convention (1951) regulates rights and duties of refugees, there is no legal framework yet on how to deal with internally displaced persons. Since many states are very protective of their sovereignty, they do not always welcome a possible engagement of the UN when it comes to internally displaced persons. Secondly, UNHCR provides material aid to developing countries confronted with refugee flows. In this field, the UNHCR cooperates with regional organizations and NGOs, for example in building refugee camps. In the third place, UNHCR tries to find durable solutions for refugees. The ideal solution is a voluntary return of the refugee once the situation in the country of origin has changed. If a return was not possible, or if it was not for the best of the refugee, then, so Mr. Vargas Llosa, the person could either permanently stay in the host country or, if local integration was not possible, he/she could settle in a third country.
As major operations currently undertaken by UNHCR, Mr. Vargas Llosa named the missions in Iraq and in Darfur. In Iraq, there are 2 million internally displaced persons and 2 million refugees outside of Iraq, mostly in Jordan and Syria. In Darfur, UNHCR deals with 2 million internally displaced persons. Over 250.000 people have crossed the border to Chad, where UNHCR cooperates with the government of Chad to build refugee camps. A third large field of operation is Columbia, where after 40 years of civil war the number of internally displaced persons is close to 3 million. According to Mr. Vargas Llosa, however, the largest operation UNHCR had ever been involved in had been in Afghanistan, where over 5 million Afghans had fled the country during the Soviet invasion in 1979, mainly to Pakistan and Iran. On all these missions, UNHCR and other aid workers are confronted with high security risks.
The major challenge ahead, so Mr. Vargas Llosa, was to preserve the institution of asylum in the face of increasing migration, and especially migration for economic reasons. The challenge for UNHCR is to make governments understand that the institution of asylum shall not be affected by the fact that migration increases. Since the search for asylum is often a question of life and death, it must not be confused with economic migration. Mr. Vargas Llosa also added that the fight against terrorism threatened to influence the rights of refugees in a negative way.
Mr. Vargas Llosa’s interesting briefing pointed out the enormous work of the UN in the field of refugees and the increasing importance of protecting and promoting refugees’ rights.