The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a unique influential, non-political and humanitarian organization which performs a highly politicized role, caught between a mandate that made it responsible to national governments and dependent on international donors while trying to address the needs of refugees. Looking at the history of this extremely visible UN Agency, this project will shed light on the importance of international institutions in post-war international history and analyze how UNHCR activities contributed to and were shaped by major processes such as decolonization, development and globalization. In addition, this study will add a new dimension to international historiography by producing an analysis of its role during the period when it truly began acting on a world scale.
From the mid-1960s, when its legal mandate expanded, UNHCR faced a series of massive refugee flows in Africa, Asia, and Central America. By focusing on the following general questions, historians involved in this project will explore how UNHCR reacted to these challenges:
- How did UNHCR manage to overcome its original limitations to intervene globally and how did it face the inherent practical and legal challenges linked to this expansion? How did the UN Refugee Agency adjust to its new global role and new refugee situations not foreseen when it was created in the early 1950s? Was it a process of had hoc adaptation or was there a carefully thought plan? Moreover, what were the differences (if any) in the UNHCR’s approaches to the refugee problem in various parts of the world and how can we explain the variations?
- How did UNHCR manage to uphold its “entirely non-political” character in often highly politicized and militarized international, regional and local contexts? How difficult was it to remain impartial and to what degree was UNHCR able to act independently from States’ interests? Did UNHCR advocate certain policies, take sides in conflicts, or simply ‘clean up other people’s mess’? Did its approach dramatically change with the globalization of the refugee question, especially in the context of decolonization?
- How did UNHCR relate to other UN Agencies and International Organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? UNHCR is an organization that has always relied heavily on partnership with various institutions to fulfill its mandate. These partnerships have often been positive but there were also cases when UNCHR faced competition or disagreements with other organizations. The content and meaning of such relations still need to be analyzed.
This project will draw on the Records of UNHCR Field and Headquarters Operations and the Records of the Office of the High Commissioner, which provide a unique window into the coordination of international humanitarian action. These newly opened archives will be complemented by other international organizations’ and national archives as well as interviews with former UNHCR staff members. The project will lead to the publication of articles and working papers.
Jussi Hanhimäki, Project Director
Jérôme B. Elie, Research Coordinator
Jaci Eisenberg, Research Assistant
Nathaniel Kinsey Powell, Research Assistant
- David Myard, "Sadruddin Aga Khan and the 1971 East Pakistani Crisis: Refugees and Mediation in Light of the Records of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees", Global Migration Research Paper 1 | 2010. [More info]
- Dr. Jérôme Elie presented a paper on "UNHCR and ICEM in the 1950s" at the conference on "The Forty Years' Crisis: Refugees in Europe, 1919-1959", Birkbeck College, University of London, 14–16 September 2010.
- Dr. Jérôme Elie, "The Historical Roots of Cooperation Between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration", Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, Vol. 16 No 3, 2010, pp.345-360.
Other Current Projects on UNHCR History
Previous Projects Based on the UNHCR Archives