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UN: Refugee Agency -- 50 Years Old And No End To Its Role

  • Joe Lauria

After 50 years and scores of wars, the UN refugee agency has grown to an organization of 5,000 staff members and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. RFE/RL's Joe Lauria looks at how an agency set up for temporary duty in postwar Europe has become one of the world's indispensable relief organizations.

United Nations, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When the Russian government invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in December 1994 to care for 250,000 Chechens who had fled the civil war in their republic, the UN agency was embarking on a difficult new course.

The UNHCR, which celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday (Dec. 14), is chartered to look after refugees -- that is, people who have fled to another nation. Technically, the Chechens were not refugees, but "internally displaced persons" since they remained within Russia.

Working with other international organizations, UNHCR helped return many of the war's victims to Chechnya. But the dangers posed to its field staff were highlighted in 1998 when the head of its Chechnya office, Vincent Cochetel, was kidnapped by rebels and held for 11 months.

With the eruption of war in the republic again the following year, some 200,000 Chechens again fled their region to neighboring republics. But this time, when attacks on UNHCR aid workers increased, the agency essentially abandoned the new refugees to the elements, making it the target of strong international criticism.

Refugee Policy Director Rachel Reilly of Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization, says that the Chechnya episode marked one of the low points in UNHCR history.

UNHCR's beginnings were humble and the global role it would one day play was not obvious at its founding. That occurred five years after World War II ended, when 400,000 people were still refugees in Europe and were seeking to resume a semblance of normal life.

Temporary international efforts to help them were replaced in 1950 by the new agency. It was given a $300,000 budget, a staff of 33, and a mandate of only three years.

Fifty years, scores of wars and an international explosion of refugees later, UNHCR now has 5,000 staff members and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. It seeks to cope with an estimated 14 million people driven from their homelands.

The departing high commissioner for refugees, Sadako Ogata of Japan, noted this at a ceremony yesterday in Geneva marking the organization's birth a half-century ago:

"UNHCR's 50th anniversary is -- in itself -- no cause for celebration. In fact, our longevity is a reflection of the international community's failure to prevent prejudice, persecution, poverty, and other causes of conflict and displacement."

Today, UNHCR's concerns are quite complex. It must deal with the politics of refugee assistance, including the vagaries of funding for specific projects rather than for the agency as a whole. It has to concern itself, too, with the debate over whether to assist internally displaced persons or only refugees, as well as with the suspicions of host governments toward asylum-seekers and the use of refugee camps as breeding grounds for black-marketeering and military recruitment.

UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 1954 and 1981. But Ogata, who served for 10 years, said yesterday that attention should be focused on what she described as the "courage and contributions of millions of refugees around the world." She said refugees are one of the world's least visible, though biggest, problems.

One reason for their declining visibility, Ogata says, is the changing nature of conflict. With conflicts now primarily internal, she says the need for protecting refugees may be greater now than ever.

"The security conditions to which refugees are exposed are much more complex. At the same time, we have to realize that the security needs may be even bigger."

UNHCR now takes care of refugees on four continents. But it began as an organization helping only refugees from European communist regimes. In 1956, the agency helped resettle 200,000 Hungarians who had escaped Soviet repression of a revolution in their country. But it did little to help hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong or thousands of Tibetan refugees who fled to India in the 1950s.

In 1962, the agency helped repatriate 250,000 refugees from Morocco and Tunisia to the newly independent Algeria. Decolonization in Africa during the 1960s presented UNHCR with a new problem. Instead of individuals fleeing political persecution, the agency had to cope with large flows of refugees fleeing war and communal violence.

This has been largely UNHCR's problem ever since. The intensification of the Cold War during the 1980s turned civil conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Central America into proxy wars, producing new waves of refugees. The largest group among them was six million people from Afghanistan who poured into neighboring Iran and Pakistan, most of whom have never returned.

UNHCR's yearbook, calls "The State of World's Refugees 2000," calls the 1980s "the decade of large refugee camps. States," its says, "had clear strategic interests in granting asylum but showed little interest in long-term solutions for refugees."

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s triggered the movement of as many as another nine million people. Some were fleeing fresh conflicts, others returning home to newly liberated countries.

Wars in the South Caucasus and Afghanistan, as well as inside Russia itself -- such as in Chechnya -- created additional waves of refugees that posed fresh challenges to UNHCR. The agency only entered Chechnya after it was invited by the Russian government to care for "internally displaced people," or IDPs.

In Bosnia, UNHCR was faulted for helping to set up safe zones within the country rather than aiding endangered people to flee. The criticism grew after massacres at two safe zones, Zepa, and Srebrenica.

The debate over internally displaced persons intensified last year when the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, campaigned to have them accorded the same rights as refugees. But Ogata has repeatedly defended the legal distinctions between the two groups, insisting that UNHCR cannot help IDPs unless invited in by the host government, which itself is often the source of persecution.

Another problem facing the incoming UNHCR chief, Ruud Lubbers, the former prime minister of the Netherlands, is the legal challenge to the right of asylum that is now being mounted by governments in Western Europe and North America.

Rachel Reilly of Human Rights Watch says European countries, as well as North America and Australia, have steadily reduced their responsibilities toward refugees over the past 10 to 15 years. She says asylum debate in Europe is taking place within an increasingly hostile and xenophobic environment.