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International Refugee Policies

There have always been refugees, but their plight was first recognized as a major international problem after WORLD WAR I when the number of refugees in Europe and Asia Minor totaled in the millions. The first world institution to come to the aid of refugees was the LEAGUE OF NATIONS Office of High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1921. Although U.S. president WOODROW WILSON was a principal founder of the League of Nations, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty on which it was based, and the United States never joined the League. This office was later called the Nansen Office in honor of the Norwegian scholar who first headed it. The Nansen Office provided assistance to 500,000 Greeks who were resettling from Asia Minor to Greece and to 500,000 Turks resettling from Greece to Turkey.

The rise of Nazi Germany led to another flood of international refugees in 1933. Because Germany would not permit the Nansen Office to assist those individuals, the League of Nations created the Office of the High Commissioner for the Refugees from Germany. By 1938 the office was expanded to help Austrian refugees fleeing the Nazis as well. The two League of Nations offices were later combined into the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1938, 32 countries met to establish the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, at the urging of U.S. president FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT. This time the United States was a member of the organization. These organizations helped European political and social refugees in a variety of ways, for example by giving them identity and travel documents.

By 1944 all of the functions of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees were assumed by the UNITED NATIONS (UN) in an office that was later called the International Refugees Organization (IRO). The United States was a member of the United Nations and participated in this international front as well. The IRO helped 1.5 million European and Asian refugees. It was dismantled in 1951, and its duties were taken over by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR is responsible for protecting international refugees and assisting with the problems created by mass movements of people resulting from civil disturbance or military conflict. The high commissioner follows policy directives handed down by the UN General Assembly. The United Nations encourages countries to admit refugees and stateless persons and provide resettlement opportunities for them. The UN also seeks to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency and family security in their new homes. Members of the United Nations agree to help refugees and stateless persons by giving them the same civil liberties afforded their nationals and the same economic rights afforded other foreign nationals.

In 1948 the United Nations also addressed the Palestinian refugee situation in the Middle East by creating a new organization, the United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees, later called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The UNRWA assisted more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees through the early 1970s.

In 1982 the UNHCR turned its attention to the 1.2 million African refugees in Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and the horn of Africa. The majority of refugees were escaping conditions of famine in the underdeveloped African countries. Also in the early 1980s, the UNHCR assisted more than 36,000 Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea. During the 1980s, the UNHCR helped 2.9 million refugees leave Afghanistan and resettle in Pakistan.

The United Nations also helps refugees by assisting in their voluntary repatriation, or return to their home country. By 1988 the UNHCR helped at least 150,000 refugees return to their countries of origin, mostly in Africa and Central America. The UN General Assembly declared in 1988 that voluntary repatriation is the ideal solution to the problems faced by refugees.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UNHCR began to study the particular problems faced by women and children refugees and called for further efforts to protect these special groups.

In addition to the United Nations and the League of Nations, various international charitable organizations, such as AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL,

strive to aid refugees and stateless persons. Religious relief organizations also have aided refugees by providing food, clothing, shelter, and resettlement assistance.

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