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Role of UNHCR- A Critical Analysis

Published: 7th Mar, 2022


The world is witnessing the largest and most rapid escalation ever in the number of people being forced from their homes.

  • Millions of people are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar and recently in Ukraine, as well as persecution in areas of Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, creating the highest level of displacement since World War II.


About UNHCR:

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 to address the refugee crisis that resulted from World War II. It is a UN agency mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people. It assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
  • The UNHCR has also won the Nobel Prize for Peace twice (1954 and 1981). Its parent organisation is the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It’s headquarter is situated in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • UNHCR serves as the ‘guardian’ of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol. According to the legislation, States are expected to cooperate with us in ensuring that the rights of refugees are respected and protected.

Objective of UNHCR:

  • UNHCR’s objective is to guarantee the fundamental rules accepted by all States concerning the right of individuals to flee their country and seek asylum in another.
  • To facilitate the same, it helps States face the administrative, legal, diplomatic, financial, and human problems that are caused by the refugee phenomenon.

Understanding Refugee, Asylum – Seeker and Migrant:

  • Refugee: Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection. The refugee definition can be found in the 1951 Convention and regional refugee instruments, as well as UNHCR’s Statute. The UN defines refugees as those individuals that have fled their own countries because of persecution, war or violence.
  • Migrant: While there is no formal legal definition of an international migrant, most experts agree that an international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. Generally, a distinction is made between short-term or temporary migration, covering movements with a duration between three and 12 months, and long-term or permanent migration, referring to a change of country of residence for a duration of one year or more.
  • Asylum-seeker: An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.

Why do refugees need protection?

  • States are responsible for protecting the fundamental human rights of their citizens.
  • When they are unable or unwilling to do so often for political reasons or based on discrimination – individuals may suffer such serious violations of their human rights that they have to leave their homes, their families and their communities to find sanctuary in another country.
  • Since, by definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments, the international community steps in to ensure they are safe and protected.

Who does the 1951 Convention protect?

  • The 1951 Convention protects refugees. It defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him— or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
  • The Convention is both a status and rights-based instrument and is underpinned by several fundamental principles, most notably non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement.
Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. India is not a party to the UN Refugee Conventions. Article 21 of the Constitution encompasses the right of non-refoulment.
  • It builds on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.
India is not a party to the UN Refugee Conventions; it is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966.

What rights does the 1967 Protocol contain?

  • The 1967 Protocol broadens the applicability of the 1951 Convention.
  • The 1967 Protocol removes the geographical and time limits that were part of the 1951 Convention.
  • These limits initially restricted the Convention to persons who became refugees due to events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.
  • The Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, alternatively known as the 1967 Protocol, is a major international document for refugee rights.
  • The protocol expands the definition of a refugee given in the Convention.
  • It also removes the Euro-centricity of the Convention. India is not a signatory to the 1967 Protocol.

Current refugee crises across the globe:

  • Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar fled the country after violence broke out in the country’s Rakhine state. An estimated 6.7 lakh crossed over to neighbouring Bangladesh. Chin State in Myanmar’s northwest has also seen large-scale displacement.
  • The Afghans were evacuated to the UAE on behalf of the United States and other Western countries following the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. The UAE agreed to provide the Afghans with temporary housing until they could travel onwards to third countries, but six months later many said they had received no news on their immigration cases. Beyond the UAE, thousands of Afghans are in a similar state of limbo in south-eastern European countries such as Albania and Greece, and in other parts of the world, including Uganda, Mexico and Chile.
  • In Africa, the three countries alone – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Sudan – conflicts have led to the internal flight of some nine million people. In many areas, security has deteriorated to such an extent that humanitarian work has been impossible and past successes, including repatriation and successful reintegration, are now jeopardized.
  • According to a UN report, the Ukraine refugee crisis passes one million in the first week of Russia's invasion. It could be the swiftest refugee exodus in history. This took three months even in Syria. Five million people may eventually leave Ukraine. The question arises, Is the world ready to handle the worst refugee crisis of the century?

UNHCR’s operational environment is characterized by four main trends. These are:

  • a decreasing number of refugees
  • increased internal displacement
  • growing numbers and complexity of irregular and mixed migration movements
  • a pressing need for reform across the humanitarian response system

Key Challenges to UNHCR:

  • Growing Disregard for International Law
  • Mandate to address statelessness
  • Disdain for Multilateral Cooperation
  • Stretched Humanitarian System (due to major emergencies and COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Increase in irregular and mixed migration movements

Area of Improvements:

Improving the security of refugees and humanitarian workers:

  • Threats to the physical security of refugees and others of concern have grown in recent years. They emanate from armed criminals, state and non-state armed actors, local populations and even elements within the refugee community itself.
  • At the same time, the “humanitarian space” for aid workers has also been shrinking, and staff of humanitarian agencies have increasingly become the target of violent attacks.
  • To counter violence, UNHCR takes help from UN peacekeepers and national police, which help them to separate combatants from civilian elements.

Internal reform:

  • One of the biggest challenges for UNHCR as an organization is how to become more flexible, effective and results-oriented.
  • Its administrative structures, systems, processes and staffing arrangements are being reviewed to make sure that they are fully aligned with the challenges.

Promoting the use of Resettlement:

  • Resettlement is a vital instrument of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing, and UNHCR is mandated to continue to promote it.
  • Resettlement on some occasions has been hampered by a very restrictive implementation of anti-terrorist legislation.

Addressing the protection concerns in mixed population flows:

  • To ensure refugee protection in migration-focused responses to mixed population movements. Faced with restrictive policies and obstacles to entry into territory, asylum-seekers and refugees have been resorting increasingly to illegal means.
  • The Office fears that increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees are being treated as if they were illegal migrants, and in the process, their right to international protection is violated.
In the face of barriers to immigration, some economic migrants have tried to use the asylum door, which has led to many calls for restrictive asylum policies in an effort to curb “bogus” asylum claims, and to the perception that refugees and asylum-seekers are only after a better life.

Introduction of Results-Based Management (RBM):

  • The introduction of results-based management has made some progress and the next step is the testing and application of specially-designed software. It primarily focuses on two areas:
    1. Planning Tool
    2. Monitoring Tool
  • UNHCR’s ability to meet these challenges will have important implications for the protection and welfare of the people the Office works for.


Reform processes within the United Nations, particularly with regard to responses to humanitarian concerns and notably to situations of internal displacement, require UNHCR to adopt new methods of work and new approaches in order to become more flexible, efficient, reliable and integrated partner within the broader UN system.

A new humanitarian crisis is escalating now as a result of ongoing Russia’s military action in Ukraine. As many as 4 million Ukrainians are expected to leave the country in the coming days and weeks.  It is considered the largest exodus of people in Europe since the Balkan wars. The incidents of double standards and racism inherent in Europe's refugee responses are glaring. There are accounts of Polish authorities taking aside African students and refusing them entry into Poland. It’s a testing time for UNHCR to step up its operation and capacity in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

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