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Environment

UN refugee agency marks 60th anniversary

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees marks the 60th anniversary of its founding on Tuesday. The body was born in the aftermath of World War II, but its importance has only grown.

Afghanistanis who fled their villages rest at a refugee camp in 2000 in Herat

The UNHCR moves ceaselessly from one conflict zone to another

Setup in 1950 as a temporary agency to help about a million people displaced by the devastating war in Europe, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was supposed to have completed its work within three years and gone out of business.

Six decades later, however, agency still exists.

It has grown from a small organization to a big enterprise, tending to refugee crises in 120 countries, and as the scope of its work has expanded, so too has its profile.

But the fact that the UNHCR is forced to move from one refugee crisis to another is no cause for celebration. The agency has helped more than 50 million refugees rebuild their lives over the past 60 years.

The UNHCR has received two Nobel peace prizes in recognition of the work it has done on behalf of some of the most bereft people in the world.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Alexander Aleinikoff said the UNHCR has operated in a sort of temporary limbo for most of its existence, because for many years people believed the refugee situation was temporary and would be solved.´

Refugee camp in Bredjing, Chad

There are tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Chad

"It was not until just a few years ago that we were finally put on permanent footing by the UN with the unfortunate recognition that refugee issues will probably be with us forever," he told Deutsche Welle.

Long history

The UNHCR faced its first major emergency in 1956, when Soviet troops crushed the Hungarian uprising, sending more than 180,000 Hungarians into neighboring countries in search of asylum.
Consultant and former UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond called this a turning point for the agency.

"The agency until that time had dealt with what we call individual cases - individuals fleeing persecution," he said. "Now, you have got a huge group of people fleeing for the same reason and so the UNHCR began addressing refugees as groups en masse, what we call prima facie cases."

The world is arguably a more complicated place today than when the UNHCR was first created, and international wars have largely given way to civil conflicts. This shift is reflected in the numbers.

Sixty years ago, the UNHCR had 30 staff members and a budget of $300,000 (227,000 euros) to assist about a million European refugees. It now has a staff of 7,000 and a budget of more than $3 billion. It operates in 120 countries and assists over 30 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people.

A Burmese Rohingya refugee

The UNHCR now deals with internally displaced and stateless people, as well as refugees

Neutrality no longer respected

Conditions are particularly hard in one refugee camp on the Chad border for tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the Darfur conflict. The desert landscape is desolate and unforgiving.

"When UNHCR is called upon, we aim to deliver emergency equipment within 72 hours," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, told Deutsche Welle.

"We're not talking about rescue equipment here. We're talking about shelter, tents, buckets, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, mosquito nets...whatever it takes to make sure that people can survive until better help can arrive."

Humanitarian workers face an increasing number of dangers. In earlier times, the UN emblem acted as a protective shield so aid workers could travel freely and safely in conflict regions.

But Aleinikoff said many rebel groups no longer respect the neutrality and humanitarian nature of their work, pointing out that UNHCR aid workers have been kidnapped and murdered in the line of duty.

A man wades through floodwaters in Bangladesh

Climate change could mean a flood of refugees in years to come

"In that way we are becoming more focused on the safety of our workers," he said. "But more important is our ability to have access to the people we want to help, to people of concern to UNHCR. As humanitarian space shrinks, our ability to do our work shrinks with it."

New challenges

The principles of protection and asylum are increasingly under threat. More and more industrialized countries are putting up barriers to asylum, often turning away people in genuine need of international protection.

According to the UNHCR, this violates its essential creed. It was created to safeguard the rights of people fleeing from persecution and abuse. But, that is becoming ever more difficult as new challenges appear and the reasons for which people flee change.

Author: Lisa Schlein (bk)
Editor: Sean Sinico

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