The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is the primary organization that cares for our world’s refugees. Begun in 1951, the UNHCR has, over time, been faced with changing causes of refugee flows and a changing geopolitical climate in which it operates. Throughout its history and into the present day, the UNHCR has been constrained in its responses to the ever-changing nature of refugee flows simply by virtue of being an international organization, mandated by and serving the needs of states. The UNHCR was initially created to deal with the refugee problem in Europe that resulted from the Second World War. With the start of the Cold War, its attention shifted to helping refugees who were fleeing persecution in Communist states. As the Cold war drew to a close, the UNHCR’s focus again changed as instability in developing nations became the predominant cause of refugee flows. In each of these three phases of its development, the UNHCR’s responses were dictated by the needs and interests of the states that it was designed to serve.

Today, refugee movements continue to originate largely in the third world, however, since the Cold War the attitudes of states towards refugee assistance have changed dramatically, and thus so have the responses and strategies employed by the UNHCR. Currently the UNHCR faces three main criticisms: that its definition of who is a refugee excludes many groups of forced migrants, that its increased involvement in countries of origin may actually be denying potential refugees their right to leave their country and seek asylum, and that its recent focus on repatriation as a durable solution for refugees may be moving towards involuntary repatriation. Yet the UNHCR’s action, or lack thereof, in each of these three crucial areas is the result of the pressures and demands placed on it by the states that it serves. “ Any stance adopted by the Commission towards international refugee crises is constrained both by the scope of its mandate and by the willingness of governments to co-operate with the office” (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 288). Since its inception, the UNHCR has always had to answer to the demands of states.

UNHCR: The Early Years

During this initial phase, the European refugee flows that resulted from the Second World War were the UNHCR’s main focus. “The regime developed to respond to European displaced person situations following the two world wars and initially had a Eurocentric focus” (Keely, 2001, p. 304). In addition to being spatially centred on Europe, the actions of the Commission during this phase were focused on the resettlement of refugees. “The 1950s was dominated by resettlement. The focus was primarily Jewish and other Eastern European refugees created during the aftermath of World War II, many of whom were resettled from Europe to North America, Australia and Israel” (Koser, 2002, pp. 85-86). Despite its later focus on repatriation, the UNHCR was initially aimed at resettling refugees in other industrialized states. The UNHCR’s actions during this phase were also very much in line with the international norms that prevailed at this time.

The Commission rose out of the wave of internationalism that swept through the international community following the Second World War, and from its inception was an idealistic organization whose objectives were based in the protection of universal human rights.

As codified in the 1951 Convention, ‘refugee’ was a universal concept, defined without regard to nationality. While states were not obligated to grant asylum, they bound themselves indirectly by confirming the principle of nonrefoulement. The underlying norms clearly acknowledged a collective responsibility for certain basic human rights in situations where these rights were not protected by a given state (Suhrke and Newland, 2001, p. 285).

The mandate of the UNHCR arose out of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees but this mandate protected not only the rights of refugees but also the interests of states. “The UNHCR was created by Western governments in such a way that it would neither pose a threat to their sovereignty nor impose new financial obligations on them” (Loescher, 2001, p. 35). The Commission dealt only with those who had been forced out of their state, thereby ensuring it would not infringe on national sovereignty by concerning itself with the people within any state’s jurisdiction (Barnett, 2001, 252). It also protected states from the extreme financial requirements of caring for refugees by ensuring collective responsibility, so that all states would provide funding for their care. Further even to these restrictions however, it was clear that states’ interest in aiding refugees was motivated at least as much by their own self-interest as by any humanitarian impulses, since “refugee flows, after all, are a destabilizing threat to the state system” (Keely, 1996, p. 1061). Even in this phase, the tension between the needs of refugees and the desires of states within the UNHCR’s mandate was very clear, and as the Cold War began it became more apparent that the Commission’s actions were centred around the interests of states, especially those in the Western Bloc.

Refugees and the Cold War

During the Cold War period, one major change occurred in the mandate of the UNHCR. While its mandated had initially limited the Commission’s attention to European refugees displaced before January 1, 1951, this mandate was considerably expanded by the 1967 Protocol. “In 1967 a Protocol removing the time and geographical limitations of the 1951 Convention was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly” (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 283). This broadening of the UNHCR’s realm of concern was essential for the focus that the Commission was driven to adopt during the Cold War.

As East-West tensions intensified, the Cold War became the subsuming concern for Western states, and as such it should be no surprise that during this period the UNHCR’s attention was concentrated on refugees fleeing communist states. “With the onset of the Cold War, the contrast emerged between refugees as products of war to a shift in emphasis to those who are the result of state oppression” (Adelman, 2001, p. 13). During this era Western governments were predominantly focused on “refugees fleeing Communist regimes” (Bwakira, 2001, p. 278). The other important trait common among refugee flows at this time was that, with few exceptions, they took place in developing countries (Gordenker, 1987, p. 53). This is already a fairly stark contrast to the previous phase where refugee flows had originated in the developed regions of Europe, and this is important to note since this trend only intensifies in later phases. This focus on Cold War refugees, however, was dictated largely by state interests.

Western states during this period tended to be very positive in their reception of refugees, since population exoduses from communist countries lent credence to their claim of the superiority of capitalism. “In the years following the Second World War, the vast majority of refugee movements flowed from East to West and refugees were viewed by Western governments as welcome evidence of the failure of communist systems” (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 281). In addition to their embracing refugees from communist states, governments at this time also continued both their earlier focus on third country resettlement as the ideal durable solution for refugees as well as their Eurocentric approach to refugee problems in general. “For the West it was virtually inconceivable that refugees from e.g. the USSR would be willing to return home, or should be forced to repatriate. Nor was the West willing or able to conceive of refugee problems outside of Europe” (Ibid., p. 282). As the Cold War came to a close however, states would be forced to expand their scope, since the next phase for the UNHCR was dominated by refugee flows from the third world.

Refugees from the Developing World: UNHCR in the Post-Cold War Period

The end of the Cold War saw a major shift in the regions and countries of origin for refugee movements. While the UNHCR’s focus had previously rested solely in Europe, it now shifted to the third world. During the post-Cold War period “refugee problems proliferated around the globe… and were rapidly shifting to various parts of the Third World where newly independent countries were proliferating” (Gorman, 1993, p. 2). Countries that were during this time gaining independence from former colonial powers became the largest producers of refugee flows as they underwent periods of internal strife.

At the same time as the destabilizing effects of the end of colonial rule were beginning to be felt, the effects of globalization were becoming more apparent in the developing world. Globalization exacerbated wealth discrepancies between developed and developing nations and brought with it dramatic changes in technology. “The disintegration of colonial empires and increasing demands for economic development for rapidly growing populations – all partly the outcome of the spread of modern technologyconverted what had till then been comparatively stable regions into areas of social and political turmoil” (Gordenker, 1987, p. 50). In addition to making the world’s wealth disparities more obvious, the spread of new technologies also had a direct impact on individual refugees.

With the increasing spread of technology came increasing access to information. The time-space compression brought on by new communication and transportation technologies was also felt by refugees, who now had new options in terms of their access to industrialized countries and asylum therein.

Knowledge of migration routes and opportunities increased, and so did the organization of movements. At the same time, the gains from globalization were unequally distributed, creating strong incentives for people to move… When economic marginalization combined with oppression and violence… the reasons for leaving were magnified (Suhrke and Newland, 2001, p. 290)

Technology, in some cases, provided refugees with new information regarding their asylum options and it also provided them with direct access to those options. “Unlike in earlier periods, these ‘jet-agerefugees were no longer confined to their regions of origin and now traveled directly to Western countries by air transport” (Loescher, 2001, p. 41). Both the changing origins of refugee flows, from Europe to the third world, and new technologies that provided asylum-seekers with access to Western states contributed to the formation of a new type of reaction to refugee flows on the part of states.

During this period, economic recession among Western states converged with the end of the ideological justifications for welcoming refugees that had been provided by the Cold War to give rise to increasingly restrictive asylum and resettlement policies in these states.

Until the so-called oil crisis of 1973 refugees helped fill labour market gaps. Thereafter the demand for overseas labour dried up, and unemployment among European populations grew rapidly, marking the beginning of at least a decade of recessionEconomic recession thus marked the beginning of the end of what some analysts described as the ‘interest convergence’ between refugees and the industrialized states. This was further ruptured, and the trends towards closing refugee resettlement programmes reinforced, by the end of the Cold War, which removed any ideological or strategic motivations for resettling refugees from communism and its consequences (Koser, p. 88).

Due to rising unemployment, states no longer had economic reasons for embracing asylum-seekers. The loss of this financial motivator as well as the strategic geopolitical motivator that had been the impetus for Cold War resettlement policies caused states in the developed world to become drastically less supportive of the refugee aid regime that had dominated in the previous two periods. This change in state policy had a tremendous impact of the approaches and solutions available to the UNHCR.

The UNHCR has been forced to accommodate a metamorphosis in the refugee policies of Western governments. This appears to be a reaction to the changing nationality of refugee populations, whose origins now spring primarily from the ‘Third World’ crises rather than from ‘Cold War’ issues. Western governments appear to be less welcoming towards applications for asylum from third world applicants (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 279).

Increasingly restrictive asylum policies among industrialized governments have been well documented and this is becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon. “The closure of borders to prevent unwanted refugee influxes is now much more wide spread than it was during the Cold War” (Loescher, 2001, p. 46). Refugee problems have in this recent period become a mounting crisis, and yet the UNHCR has been constrained in its responses by increasingly restrictive state policies and attitudes. This is the tension that surrounds the main challenges that the UNHCR faces today.

UNHCR: Current Challenges

Today, refugee flows still generally originate from the same sources as in the post-Cold War period. There have however, been several slight shifts in the intensity and handling of refugee movements. “The number of people commonly identified as refugees has reached unparalleled levels” (Gordenker, 1987, p. 52). In addition to an overall increase in the number of refugees in the world, there has also been a change in the types of conflict that can cause their displacement. “Increasingly, internal and localized conflicts have become the most frequent cause of displacement today. Civilians have become targets of outright violence aimed at terrorizing and subjugating them and compelling them to flee their homes” (Bwakira, 2001, p. 280). More and more often the violence that refugees are fleeing is directed specifically towards the civilian population, which only further intensifies their need for protection.

There has also been a visible shift in the way states view their commitment to refugee problems. In terms of their obligations towards helping refugees, today “the obligations of states, freely assumed, are taken less seriously” (Goodwin-Gill, 2001, p. 133). Support of any international organization is almost entirely voluntary, and states are beginning to see their commitment to the UNHCR as less important and less binding. The size of refugee flows is increasing, the need for protection is growing, and states are becoming increasingly resistant towards providing aid to refugees. It is in this environment of mounting pressure that the responses of the UNHCR have started to change, and that the three central criticisms of the UNHCR have developed.

Who is a Refugee? Allegations of Exclusion

The UNHCR definition of a refugee comes from paragraph six of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as a person who:

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (UNHCR, 1951, as quoted on the Commission’s website at

This definition has frequently been criticized for being too narrow and excluding many groups in need of assistance and protection. “The conventional definition of refugees… fails to account for the many others uprooted by communal ethnic conflict, life-threatening environmental and economic conditions, and mandatory repatriations” (Wood, 1994, p. 607, for a greater discussion of this criticism, see also Black, 1993, p.5 and Goodwin-Gill, 2001, p. 137). Clearly, this definition does exclude many groups in need. Some scholars take an even broader approach and suggest that “if the state is negligent or indifferent to meeting its obligations to protect its citizens’ basic needs, this breach of the contract with the state could be grounds for international assistance to refugees” (McGregor, 1993, p. 161). In other words, anyone whose state is unable to protect their basic human rights should be considered a refugee and allowed to seek asylum elsewhere. Whether or not such a broad expansion of this definition is desirable, it is clear that many people who are clearly in need of protection are excluded from the protection of the UNHCR; from those fearing starvation due to environmental or economic crises, victims of ethnic conflicts, and even Internally Displaced Persons, who would otherwise meet the UNHCR’s refugee criteria except that they have not crossed an international border. Yet even if the UNHCR were to desire an expanded definition in order to aid a greater proportion of the world’s displaced people, it is beyond their power to do so.

The increasingly restrictive stance towards asylum seekers that has been adopted by many states is indicative of how unlikely they would be to support an expanded definition of refugee, since this would increase the number of people to whom they may be obliged to grant asylum.

European countries and the U.S., and Canada also, have moved away from a system that bent over backward in favor of the asylum applicant… Now asylum is being given more in line with strict interpretations of what is required under international treaty obligations such as the Convention and the Protocol on the Status of Refugees (Keely, 2001, p. 312).

If states are tending towards a stricter interpretation of the already narrow definition of refugees, it is clear that they would not be supportive of expanding the definition. This attitude on the part of states serves to constrain the UNHCR. They cannot expand their mandate unless the political impetus to do so arises from the member states of the UN, and therefore the definition continues to exclude many groups of displaced persons.

Prevention of Refugee Flows

Recently, the UNHCR has become increasingly involved in country of origin interventions, bringing humanitarian relief to people within war-torn regions in an attempt to avert potential refugee flows. In recent crises “the UNHCR tackled refugee-producing situations at or near their source. This major change in the handling of refugee issues included an increased focus on preventative action, even in countries at war, to reduce the likelihood of massive refugee flows across borders” (Loescher, 2001, p. 43). While previously the UNHCR had been limited to providing aid to people who had crossed an international border, it is now frequently the case that “UNHCR’s humanitarianism no longer stops at the border’s edge” (Barnett, 2001, p. 246). But this in-country intervention has not been uncontroversial, and the UNHCR now faces allegations that such preventative measures may deny refugees their basic rights.

One of the rights of refugees that had been entrenched in the UNHCR’s mandate was the right to flee their home country and seek asylum elsewhere. By attempting to discourage flight through country of origin preventative aid, the Commission may be denying refugees this most basic right.

In-country prevention, e.g. through the establishment of internationally guaranteed safe zones… needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to leave their own country, to seek and enjoy asylum or return on a voluntary basis and not be compelled to remain in a territory where life, liberty or physical integrity is threatened (Barnett, 2001, p. 263).

The right to leave one’s country is one of the basic rights set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and so prevention of refugee flows could easily been seen as being in violation of that right (Gordenker, 1987, p. 161). Yet the UNHCR has been compelled to in-country intervention due to state interests in averting refugee flows.

It clearly seems to follow that if states are enacting more restrictive asylum policies to reduce the number of refugees to whom they are obliged to aid, they would also have a vested interest in the prevention of such flows all together. “Governments and other authorities are… logically encouraged to give attention to the prevention of refugee flows, if only in order to ease the burden of coping with their results” (Gordenker, 1987, p. 158). Despite the humanitarian overtures evident in a desire to aid people before they are forced to leave their country, there is obviously a compelling argument towards the impetus for this new approach arising out of state self-interest.

The desire to help displaced peoples of all kinds, regardless of whether they were on one side or another of an international border, could mean that states were willing to help the internally displaced because they were not giving individuals the chance to flee across a border and seek asylum… This expanding humanitarian agenda… could become part of a system of containment (Barnett, 2001, p. 259).

Once again it is evident that the actions of the UNHCR in response to this mounting refugee crisis were dictated fundamentally by states, not by the needs of refugees.

(In)voluntary Repatriation?

While the UNHCR during the earlier phases of its development, as was desired by states, tended to focus on resettlement as the ideal durable solution for refugees, it has recently turned to repatriation. Although it can be argued that for many refugees, repatriation is “the only real alternative to indefinite subsistence on charity” (Loescher, 2001, 42), this increased emphasis on it by states has caused the UNHCR to shift from voluntary repatriation to a system that many fear is becoming one of mandatory repatriation.

What voluntary meant in voluntary repatriation began to alter. Voluntary repatriation demanded that the refugee consent to return to a country that in his or her view no longer represented a threat to his or her safety. But UNHCR officials began introducing new concept like ‘voluntariness’ that meant refugee consent was no longer necessary and that the home situation need only have appreciably improved or held out the promise of improving (Barnett, 2001, p. 261).

Voluntary repatriation then, was no longer determined by refugees themselves, but rather by the UNHCR, in response to political pressure.

While repatriation was always one of the UNHCR’s available durable solutions, the nature of it has clearly changed, and again this change has come about as a result of states putting pressure on the UNHCR to align the way it addresses refugee problems with their own goals and desires. “The contemporary pressures put upon the UNHCR to promote repatriation are sufficient to challenge its voluntary nature” (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 286). This changed interpretation of repatriation is clear evidence of the reality that the UNHCR must answer to the needs of states. “The emphasis upon promoting repatriation is primarily in line with the ambitions of donor governments who… are anxious to restrict numbers and to reduce their financial obligations” (Ibid., p. 289). In keeping with their generally more restrictive and less positive approach to refugee problems in recent years, governments are encouraging repatriation as yet another way to reduce their commitment to providing aid to our world’s refugees.


Over the course of its history the UNHCR has been faced with refugee flows from diverse regions of the world and stemming from a variety of causes. While it was originally mandated specifically to address the problem of people displaced by the Second World War, its mandate was expanded initially to allow it to aid refugees fleeing communism during the Cold War and again as post-colonial instability caused mass refugee movements out of the third world. “Possibly never before in history has so much effort been made by such a wide proportion of mankind to succor strangers in trouble” (Gordenker, 1987, pp. 195-196). Since its inception, the UNHCR has provided badly needed aid to huge numbers of refugees throughout the world.

It is clear, however, that in each of these periods the responses of the UNHCR were dictated by the governments whose interests it was created to protect. Despite recent criticism regarding its potentially exclusionary definition of refugees, state interests in restricting numbers of asylum seekers have prevented the Commission from expanding it. This same restrictive approach to refugee problems has also been the impetus for both recent in-country intervention by the UNHCR – which it has carried out even despite criticism that doing so may endanger the basic rights of refugees – as well as an increased focus on repatriation, even to the point of compromising their original principle of voluntary repatriation. “Refugee problems and reactions to them are intensely political and it is inadequate to consider them only as humanitarian problems requiring humanitarian solutions” (Cunliffe, 1995, p. 280). The humanitarian efforts of the UNHCR are constrained by government interests and thus our current refugee crises will not be resolved until those governments find it necessary to do so. We can only hope that in the future these governments will manifest the political will to provide aid to the millions of displaced people around the world who are in desperate need of our protection.

submitted to Dr. Daniel Heibert, UBC Department of Goegraphy, for Geog353 November 27, 2003

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