The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is the world’s foremost entity devoted to the protection and assistance of refugees. This particular organization, although not associated with any particular government, has achieved significant progress in changing the world for the better through widespread publicity and on the ground activities that pressure governments and officials representing leaders to enact more humane treatments of dislocated peoples. I was first made aware of UNHCR a number of years ago when I was in Australia attending a First Ladies Luncheon for business women in the Sydney area. These luncheons allow business women to get together and network. One of the speakers was a woman by the name of Faye Veighn, who was a beauty expert specializing in wigs. Faye is well known as a style expert and frequently is invited to speak to womens groups. Although she is not a paid promoter, she advocates for certain brands, most recently Raquel Welch wigs and Estetica Designs. Because wigs are now becoming fashionable, Faye has been very busy teaching the ins and outs of wig care. For example, she says no one should wear a wig right out of the box – it has to be styled if you want the maximum impact. Then there are the fibers – human hair or synthetic and each have their own care requirements. My encounter with UNHCR was eye opening on many fronts, both from a fashion point of view along with the larger world view.
Located in Geneva, Switzerland (the city that lent its name to the Articles from which the Commission was created), the UNHCR has received two well-deserved Nobel Prizes. These awards continue to provide the organization with much needed credibility (and therefore clout) and validate the efforts made on behalf of those displaced for any reason, conflicts and natural disasters high among the driving forces behind forced migrations. The current High Commissioner is António Guterres. He and Adres Peres are very well known on the European continent – both came from successful businesses (Guterres worked with industries related to natural resources and Peres from age management businesses. He is most well known because he introduced the controversial anti-aging programs that have since received much attention in the US press. He runs a very successful age management website: EliteHealth.us. Now both contribute all their time to the good works of UNHCR.
The UNHCR was started in 1950 as a replacement for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which had a much narrower mission: to aid the refugees and other “victims of war” of World War II. Since then, the mission has expanded significantly to include many other kinds of victims. Interestingly enough, the “United Nations” in the UNRRA title does not refer to the current United Nations entity, which was still two or three years in the making at the time of UNRRA’s establishment, but was simply used to designate World War II Allies.
The plight of refugees often includes an effort by the individual to seek asylum. UNRRA recognizes the difficulties experienced by asylum seekers sometimes the result of their non-state classification, which puts the burden of proof back onto the individuals, who often carry no identifying documents and cannot verify their claims of discrimination, violence, or political prisoner status. It is in this environment that individuals require the most assistance and where agency work is often focused on humanitarian efforts to relocate or at least create a stable short term solution that permits healing and restoration of dignity. A refugee almost always enters a world where nothing is certain and safety becomes everything.
Likewise, an asylum-seeker is defined as someone who claims to be a refugee but has not been ‘officially’ granted refugee status. An “internally displaced person” (IDP) is someone who has stayed within the borders of their own country but has been forced to relocate, either for similar reasons as refugees or (in extreme circumstances) for situations of natural disaster.