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Global Migration Centre

UNHCR and the Global Cold War, 1971-1984

This collaborative, multidisciplinary project linking the UNHCR, the former Programme for the Study of Global Migration and the GCSP with the support of the Geneva International Academic Network examined the records of UNHCR field and headquarters operations during this crucial period and resulted in the creation of an online archival database and the publication of original, policy relevant findings. With three closely related components - archival processing to open up previously closed records, original research/analysis, and dissemination - this project promoted cooperation between the academic community and UNHCR in order to contribute to understanding the successes and failures of the international response to the humanitarian crises of the late 20th century and to the important trends that emerged during this period.

Description and Objectives


The project focused on 222 linear meters of paper documents covering the period 1971-1984 (UNHCR Fonds 11, Series 2) and was organized around three closely related components:

1) Archival processing to open up these records: under the guidance of the UNHCR archival staff, researchers from the GIIS are now involved in a process designed to review, preserve, declassify and describe UNHCR archives for the period 1971-1984. The ultimate result of this endeavor was to allow access to this documentation for researchers as well as the creation of an online archival database;

2) Original research/analysis: during the archival processing, the researchers - based at the GIIS and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) - identified particularly relevant research topics and produced articles and working papers;

3) Dissemination: The creation of a web-based archive catalogue provides a dynamic central resource for strengthening the institutional memory of UNHCR as well as serving as a knowledgebase for further research.

In addition, the research efforts mentioned above resulted in the publication of original, policy relevant findings presented at an international conference held in Geneva in the fall of 2007. The conference proceedings were published in a special issue of the Refugee Survey Quarterly (Vol.27, No.1, 2008).

The project’s research thus added considerable texture and nuance to the understanding of the Cold War era while placing UNHCR within the larger context of Cold War history. It shed light on the broader question of the extent to which international organizations matter in global politics. In particular, the project’s findings highlighted the fundamental, trans-disciplinary questions and phenomena that emerged during this period for the first time, especially:

  • The militarization of refugee camps (Pakistan, Thai-Cambodian border, Central America, Southern Africa);
  • The linkage between human rights violations and massive refugee flows (Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Uganda, Chile, Zimbabwe, Burma, Nicaragua, South Africa, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti);
  • Major Protracted Refugee Situations, many of continuing concern to UNHCR (Burundi, Chad, Somalia, Sudan, Western Sahara, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka);
  • UNHCR involvement in situations of internal armed conflict (Central America, Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Horn of Africa, Sudan);
  • Renewed emphasis on repatriation and rehabilitation (Bangladesh, Equatorial Guinea, Zaire/Congo);
  • The role of UNHCR as coordinator of large-scale UN assistance operations (Bangladesh, Sudan);
  • UNHCR relations and interaction with other UN agencies (FAO, UNDP, UNICEF, UNRWA, WFP, etc.), International and Non Governmental Organizations (ICRC, Amnesty International, etc.);
  • Increased focus on gender based persecution and on the special needs of refugee women.

These developments, initially highlighted by civil unrest, violence and war on the African continent, were present in one form or another in many of the humanitarian crises to which UNHCR responded during this period, from Central and Latin America to the Middle East and South East Asia. As a result, these decades witnessed an evolution of norms and standard setting with regard to refugee law, and in particular an expansion of the earlier legal framework for UNHCR activities. The records of this series document these fundamental changes and their underlying causes and provide rich material for future scholarship. 


Project Team




  • Jérôme Élie, Research Coordinator
  • Katrin Milzow, Researcher
  • Rüdiger Schöch, Researcher
  • Eileen Galang, Intern
  • Leah Malabonga, Intern
  • Anna Julia Begemann, Intern
  • Carla Helena Traub, Intern
  • Nadia Yeddes, Intern
  • Bernhard Blumenau, Intern



  • Vincent Chetail
  • Vera Gowlland-Debbas
  • Fred Tanner, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) 


  • Description of the UNHCR Archival Body [pdf]
  • Bibliography on UNHCR and Refugees [pdf]

Working Papers


  • Jérôme B. Elie: "The UNHCR and the Cold War: a Documented Reflection on the UN Refugee Agency’s Activities in the Bipolar Context" [pdf
  • The DEA thesis entitled "UNHCR and the Global Cold War - National Interest vs. Humanitarian Mandate: Assistance to Afghan Refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan", submitted in August 2007 by Rüdiger Schöch (GIIS), emerged from this project and was awarded the Certificate of Merit of the Association of the Swiss International Civil Servants (AFIS). [pdf

The Project in the Media


Frédéric Koller: "La guerre en Irak fait à nouveau croître le nombre de réfugiés Humanitaire. L'organisme des Nations unies basé à Genève ouvre ses archives de la Guerre froide", Le Temps, 21 juin 2007, p.5.




The end of project Conference was held at the new GIIS building (16, rue de la Voie-Creuse) on October 19, 2007.

  • Programme [pdf]
  • Short Biographies of Participants [pdf]  



  •  The proceedings of the conference on the UNHCR and the Global Cold War have been published in the Refugee Survey Quarterly, 2008, vol. 27, No. 1
  • Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the 1980s: Cold War politics and registration practice Rüdiger Schöch [pdf]
    In: New Issues in Refugee Research, Research Paper, 2008, No. 157
    A publication resulting from the UNHCR and the Global Cold War Project