GENEVA, DECEMBER 14 – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees turns 70 years old today. “For an organization that should have ceased to exist after three years, it is an uncomfortable birthday that we are not in the mood to celebrate”, its head Filippo Grandi said in a message posted on the UNHCR website.
“A world that swore to embark on an era of peace has proved very good at picking fights, but not so adept at solving them,” Grandi said, noting that for the past seven decades colleagues in the UN Refugee Agency have protected, saved and changed millions of lives: “But how much better it would be if no one was compelled to flee at all”. Grandi challenged the international community with a new task: “Put me out of the job. Make it your goal to build a world in which there is truly no need for a UN refugee agency because nobody is compelled to flee. Don’t get me wrong: as matters stand, our work is crucial – yet the paradox is that we ought not to exist. If we find ourselves observing many more birthdays, the only conclusion will be that the international community has failed”.
UNHCR’s mandate was originally limited
As a shattered world started to rebuild after the Second World War, UNHCR had the task of finding homes for Europe’s refugees. Brought into being on 14 December 1950, its mandate was time-limited and explicitly non-political, as if its existence was a reminder of miseries that were best swept away along with the rubble.
But the changing international order brought new conflict and thus more refugees – 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria after the 1956 uprising was crushed by Soviet forces. The following year, Tunisia appealed to UNHCR for assistance as the war of independence in neighboring Algeria sent tens of thousands of people over the border in search of safety. And the mission continued to expand. The post-colonial era was accompanied by struggles for liberation and then struggles for power, with millions of civilians caught in the upheaval. Year by year, continent by continent, UNHCR was called upon to help the increasing numbers of people forced to flee, from Central America to sub-Saharan Africa to Vietnam and Cambodia.
1% of the world population
Last year marked four decades of displacement from Afghanistan. Next year it will be a decade since the ongoing conflict erupted in Syria. Almost a year ago, the total number of refugees, internally displaced, asylum seekers and stateless people reached 1% of the world’s population. “I wonder what percentage we will consider unacceptable – 2%, 5% or more? How many people must suffer the loss and indignity of displacement before political leaders work to solve the causes of flight?”
“Don’t get me wrong”, said Grandi: “As matters stand, our work is crucial – yet the paradox is that we ought not to exist. If we find ourselves observing many more birthdays, the only conclusion will be that the international community has failed.
But if the factors driving mass displacement were resolved in just half a dozen countries, millions of refugees could go home, as could millions more internally displaced people. That would be a very good start – and it would be something we could all really celebrate”. (@OnuItalia)