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The UNHCR: Are They Helping Solve the Global Refugee Crisis?

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

What is the UNHCR?

In 1950, during the aftermath of World War 2, the UNHCR was created with the intent of solving the refugee crisis in Europe. In 1954, it received a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. Since then, the UNHCR has gone on to become a global effort, assisting refugees from all over the world. But what does the UNHCR do? What is their mission statement? How does it operate? What does their assistance look like? How do the actions of the UNHCR affect the way we view refugee crises around the globe?

Why not learn from the organization itself? The UNHCR has a detailed website answering all these questions with some level of detail. In this article, we will compile and analyze information from the UNHCR website to better understand of the scope of the refugee crisis, from the very source that is handling it. It is important to understand how a global player such as the UNHCR views crises and makes decisions.

Mission Statement of the UNHCR

“Our primary purpose at UNHCR is to safeguard the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee. Together with partners and communities, we work to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country. We also strive to secure lasting solutions.” According to the UNHCR, their main goal is to ensure the safety of individuals fleeing their country. More specifically, they believe that every individual has the right to seek asylum and the right to find safe refuge in another country. So what does the UNHCR mean by “asylum”, and what do they consider safe?

The UNHCR defines an asylum seeker as “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.” And any individual has the right to seek asylum. Asylum seekers must go through a process of approval to receive refugee or other statuses. This process can be long, costly, and overwhelming for the UNHCR however, so many individuals are not judged on an individual basis but are processed in groups where known conflict and mass migration are occurring. These individuals are known as “prima facie”.

While the UNHCR can grant asylum-seeking status to anyone who applies, they are unable to logistically help everyone who does so. Point two of their mission statement states that everyone has the right to “find safe refuge in another country”. Despite this also being considered a right, not everyone is granted this depending on the definition of “safe”. It is important to note that individual countries get the final say in accepting refugees or not, so despite the language used by the UNHCR, this right is heavily influenced by the decisions of external forces and not something that is given freely.

Who Qualifies for Refugee Status?

The UNHCR defines qualified refugees as “persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” The UNHCR must make a judgment call about who this definition represents. Not only must the UNHCR decide who they deem worthy of aid, but the counties receiving refugees must also make similar judgment calls about who they consider a refugee. Based on the UN definition, there are many ways to interpret who should be considered in this category.

Above is a list of recognized emergencies. Because of the vague nature of the definition of refugee, what it takes to be considered one is often unclear. Citizens caught up in the war between the cartel and the Mexican police for instance are not listed here. The UNHCR website does not delve into the specifications of how they make these decisions.

What the UNHCR Does During a Recognized Emergency

In general, the UNHCR is composed of a labor force of well over 18,000, of which 91 percent are part of the ground team. During a crisis, funds are redirected to the ground team for immediate assistance in establishing shelters, providing food, and registering people for asylum. Ultimately, the goal of the UNHCR is to establish permanent solutions to these crises. This involves working with experts and government organizations in order to determine the best method of processing and safeguarding the displaced people. This doesn’t always mean refugee status. The UNHCR works to improve the conditions for a variety of situations that don’t fall under this cloak. This means, however, that many of the people given protected status are not given so permanently, and are left in legal limbo, eventually needing to return to their home country if it is deemed safe.

The UNHCR provides a handbook listing its emergency response methods UNHCR|Emergency Handbook that elaborates on the specifics of how they operate.

How the UNHCR Determines Our View of Refugee Crises

The UNHCR is the main body overseeing refugee and other displacement emergencies around the globe, as a result of this, it largely influences not only the governmental response to these emergencies but our own cultural perception of them. The UNHCR presents itself as a humanitarian organization focused on protecting the natural rights of every individual. While this is noble, it is an enormous task that isn’t possible without narrowing many definitions. The UNHCR decides on the global level who we view as refugees. They decide how a refugee crisis should be responded to. Knowing this, it’s important to understand as a citizen of any country where these definitions and rulings come from. And despite convention, it is always possible to view these situations from another point of view.


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