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Global Migration Centre

Records of the Office of the High Commissioner

A Few Words on the UNHCR


Created in 1951 to solve the problem of European refugees in the wake of World War II, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has subsequently grown to become a global operation that currently addresses the needs of over 20 million people. Beginning in the 1970’s, UNHCR experienced a sudden expansion in its role in the developing world, where large-scale humanitarian crises set in motion an evolution of norms and standard setting with regard to refugee law and exposed the organization to new challenges. In particular, the organization was charged with the management of sudden mass refugee influxes, the construction of extensive refugee camps, the procurement and distribution of food and basic relief supplies on a scale previously unimagined, and the carrying out of its humanitarian mandate in a highly politicized climate shaped by East – West tension. 


Description and Objectives


After the completion of the "UNHCR and the Global Cold War" Project, which focused on UNHCR field and headquarters operations archives (UNHCR Fonds 11 Series 2, 1971-1984), a follow-up project was set up to process part of the Records of the Office of the High Commissioner (UNHCR Fonds 13) with similar objectives: to review, preserve, declassify and describe about 20 linear meters of documents in order to allow access to these archives for researchers as well as the creation of an online archival database. Original research/analysis was also produced through articles and working papers published on this web site.


Scope and Content


This follow-up project focused on the records of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1966-1977) and of Poul Hartling (1978-1985). The records served to document the wide ranging work of the Office of the High Commissioner, and include extensive material on missions, speeches, correspondence and briefs.

Sadruddin Aga Khan was elected the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by the General Assembly in December 1965. He was re-elected unanimously by the Assembly in 1968 and again in 1973 for five years. From 1962 to 1965 he served as Deputy High Commissioner. He became associated with refugee work in 1959 as Special Envoy of the High Commissioner on several missions. Upon completion of his duties as High Commissioner, Sadruddin Aga Khan became special consultant and Chargé de Mission to the United Nations Secretary General.

In early 2004 the Princess Catherine Aga Khan transmitted to UNHCR Archives several linear meters of records originating in the offices of UNHCR during the career of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan as High Commissioner. The records predominantly cover the period of 1963 – 1977 but include material dating back to 1959 as well as some additional material from the early 1980’s when he served as Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission.

This Sub-fonds is arranged in seven series:
UNHCR Fonds 13 – Sub-fonds 1 Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan:
Series 1 Special Envoy and Deputy High Commissioner
Series 2 Chronological files
Series 3 Missions
Series 4 Subject files
Series 5 Miscellaneous
Series 6 Speeches, interviews, press and publications
Series 7 Chargé de Mission and Special Rapporteur

Poul Hartling served two terms as High Commissioner, from 1978 to 1985. His seven years as High Commissioner were overshadowed by the intensification of the cold war. A central challenge for UNHCR became how to help people in flight and keep them alive in isolated refugee camps. In responding, UNHCR’s previously legalistic role was transformed into a much more operational one. High Commissioner Hartling presided over programs for mass exodus from Somalia, Afghanistan, Indo-China and Cuba, expanding the size of UNHCR. Under his term (1981), the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for the second time to UNHCR.

The Subject and Mission files document the work of the Office of the High Commissioner from 1977-1985. Briefs for meetings of the HC from July 1977 through 1982 are indexed by year and some pre-date the appointment of Poul Hartling. The Weekly Notes on the Activities of UNHCR (1978-1984) provide an inside look at all aspects of the issues at hand during this period. The records include Policy Committee files containing agendas as well as the decisions of the committee from 1982-1985.

This Sub-fonds is arranged in two series:
UNHCR Fonds 13 – Sub-fonds 2 Poul Hartling:
Series 1 Subject
Series 2 Missions 

Project Team


  • Jussi Hanhimäki, Project Coordinator
  • Lee McDonald, Senior Archivist, UNHCR




  • Jérôme Élie, Research Coordinator
  • David Myard, Research Assistant