UNHCR at 60: Helping 34 million people in 125 countries

7 December, 2011
A woman and child at a temporary camp for people displaced by post-election violence in Kenya, 2008. Credit: UNICEF/Georgina Cranston
A woman and child at a temporary camp for people displaced by post-election violence in Kenya, 2008. Credit: UNICEF/Georgina Cranston

Representatives from almost 150 countries gathered at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) headquarters in Geneva today to commemorate two fundamental conventions - the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

As one of OCHA’s key humanitarian partners, UNHCR works in 125 countries protecting the rights and lives of some 34 million uprooted or stateless people.  

“That's the total population of Uganda or Canada,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos in a video message. “Last year, more people were displaced than in any year since 1985. UNHCR's role is needed now more than ever.”

Since its birth in the aftermath of World War II, UNHCR has played a pivotal role in helping tens of millions people displaced due to natural disasters, conflicts and persecution.  

As one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades continues to unfold in Somalia forcing a quarter of a million Somalis to flee the country in the first nine months of 2011, UNHCR opened new camps in neighbouring countries and scaled up its presence along the borders to meet the growing needs of these refugees.

In Asia, where 30 per cent of the global refugee population lives, UNHCR has responded to natural disasters in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and China in the last eight years. This year, UNHCR helped repatriate some 46,000 Afghans who wanted to return home from Pakistan and Iran.

“I am asking all of us to assume our shared duty,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, addressing the conference. “Today, let us recommit to the core values underpinning the entire system of international protection – tolerance, solidarity and respect for human rights and dignity.”