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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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The UNHCR and World Politics: A perilous Path
Gil Loescher

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001
434 pp. Pb.: 15.99, ISBN 0-19-924691-2



Loescher, a senior Political Science faculty of Notre Dame University (p 59), researched archives in Geneva and elsewhere, interviewed UNHCR administrators and staff, visited refugee camps and spoke to involved NGO's to provide a useful overview of the office of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees (presently administering relief for Afghan refugees). He details the intensive efforts of Commissioners to cushion the impact of wars and to forge international coalitions to fight human misery, often against idiosyncratic opposition from nation-states.

In 1950, after years of costly support for two predecessor organizations, UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) and the IRO (International Refugee Organization) the USA proposed a temporary agency to take over all supervision of refugee affairs (p 43). Compromises resulted in establishing the UNHCR with meager funding from the UN General Assembly and a limited mandate. The first Commissioner was Gerrit Goedhart of the Netherlands. The USA treated the office with suspicion and hostility as a "side-show" (p 54), because of lacking control during the Cold War. In 1951, 26 countries, excepting the Soviet bloc, signed a refugee convention charged with the care of the European refugee population from W.W.II (p 45). Since this convention was perceived as a weapon of the Cold War, the UNHCR was restricted by norms of state sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs. As a result, the budget of the UNHCR dropped from $150million to a mere $300,000. The USA was instrumental in creating two rival organizations, the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) and the US Escape program (1952) for the resettlement of anti-Communist refugees in Europe (p 59).

Help for the embattled UNHCR came from an unexpected private source, the Ford Foundation, which gave almost $3 million (p 67). The Berlin crisis of 1953 resulted in a flood of East German refugees. The office demonstrated its usefulness resulting in the establishment of the UNREF (United Nations Resettlement Fund). By the time of his death in 1956, Goedhart's persistence had worn down US opposition (p 75).

During the 1956 Hungarian refugee crisis, the USA cooperated with then Commissioner Lindt of Switzerland and the status of the UNHCR was consolidated. The mandate of the office was extended worldwide to aid refugees in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Africa (p 97). In the 1960's, the developing world replaced Europe as the focus of the UNHCR.

In January 2001, the ninth UN High Commissioner, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, took office, pledging " a more effective and accountable organization" (p 339).

The author proceeds to detail its current activities and ongoing problems. The politics and finance of ever-increasing problems of refugees and of IDP's (internally displaced persons) remain difficult. Overall the book is useful history and commentary for anyone interested in the study of refugees.


Dr. Gabriel S. Pellathy.



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