Main Debates

How can and should UNHCR best fulfil its supervisory responsibility for the 1951 Convention today?

To what extent should the role of UNHCR extend beyond protection to include humanitarian aid and/or return and reconstruction?

What procedural standards does UNHCR apply in its expansive role in status determination?

Has, and can, UNHCR put up effectively maintained standards in the face of restrictive tendencies in Europe and elsewhere?

Does the extension of the mandate to internally displaced persons enhance or diminish UNHCR's protection and support potential?

Main Points

Upholding protection principles in a context of complex asylum-seeker and migratory movements across the world today

UNHCR conducts status determination in over 70 countries with significant variations in practice and standards

Necessity of networks for co-operation and engagement

Dependency on major donor governments



Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 150; see in particular Article 35.

Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 4 October 1967, 606 U.N.T.S. 267.

Soft Law

Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UN General Assembly Resolution, A/RES/428 (V), 14 December 1950.

UN General Assembly Resolution, 58/153, 22 December 2003, implementing actions proposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to strengthen the capacity of his Office to carry out its mandate, 22 December 2003, para. 9.

UNHCR Documents

REFWORLD, UNHCR’s on-line database:

UNHCR, ’State of the World’s Refugees: In search of Solidarity’, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Ministerial Communiqué, Ministerial Intergovernmental Event on Refugees and Stateless Persons, 7-8 December 2011.

UNHCR, ‘Agenda for Protection’, October 2003.

UNHCR, ‘Declaration Reaffirming the Principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention’, December 2001.

UNHCR, ‘Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination Procedure under UNHCR’s Mandate’, September 2005.

UNHCR, ’Note on the Mandate of the High Commissioner and his Office’, October 2013.

UNHCR, I. A. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department: Case for the Intervener, 27 October 2013, UKSC2012/0157.



V. Türk, ’The UNHCR’s role in supervising international protection standards in the context of its mandate’ in J. Simeon (Ed)., The UNHCR and the supervision of international refugee law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 2, pp. 39-58.

B. S. Chimni, ‘The Geopolitics of Refugee Studies: A View from the South’, Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 11, no. 4 (December 1998), pp. 350–357, 365–368.

G. Goodwin-Gill and J. McAdam, The Refugee in International Law, 3rd edn,(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 20–32. [G. Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 7–17].

M. Jones, ‘The governance question: the UNHCR, the Refugee Convention and the international refugee regime’ in J. Simeon (Ed.), The UNHCR and the Supervision of International Refugee Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 75-96.


M. Barutciski, ’The limits to the UNHCR’s supervisory role’ in J. Simeon (Ed.), The UNHCR and the supervision of international refugee law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). pp. 59-74.

W. Kälin, ‘Supervising the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees: Art. 35 and Beyond’, in E. Feller, V. Türk, and F. Nicholson (eds), Refugee Protection in International Law: UNHCR’s Global Consultations on International Protection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 613–666.

G. Loescher, The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

M. Smrkolj, ‘International Institutions and Individualized Decision-Making: An Example of UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination’, in A. von Bogdandy, R. Wolfrum, J. von Bernstorff, P. Dann and M. Goldmann (eds), The Exercise of Public Authority by International Institutions (Heidelberg: Springer, 2009), pp. 399–405.


I.A. v The Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2014] UKSC 6, United Kingdom: Supreme Court, 29 January 2014, (on the weight and authority to give to UNHCR’s decisions on refugee status).

AMM and others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department – Statement on behalf of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 6 June 2011.

Editor’s Note

UNHCR’s role has evolved over time. In 1950, UNHCR was acknowledged as the global refugee agency with a mandate for providing international protection to refugees and, together with Governments, to find solutions to their plight. Unique to UNHCR compared with other UN agencies, UNHCR has a mandate to supervise the implementation of international instruments on refugees, and States are obliged to cooperate with the High Commissioner in the exercise of his/her functions. Originally given a three year mandate, which was extended every three years until 2003, the General Assembly granted UNHCR a permanent mandate “until the refugee problem is solved”. UNHCR also has mandates formally granted through the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, as well as through other instruments, to encompass stateless people, persons fleeing armed conflict and generalised violence and internally displaced persons in certain circumstances, among others. In operational terms, the organisation’s work has also developed and expanded, particularly in and following the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with the result that UNHCR takes a leading role in providing assistance and protection in conflict zones and complex humanitarian emergencies today.

This extended responsibility could not be discharged without an ever growing co-operation with other member organizations and programs of the UN family and without the expanding engagement of national and international non-governmental organizations as implementing partners.

The outreach and impact of the UN-led international protection regime depends on the ongoing support of the major donor governments.

In recent years, the Syria conflict has created one of the largest and most challenging single displacement crises that has confronted UNHCR and the international community. At the same time, millions of refugees and internally displaced persons remain in need of protection and assistance in many other regions of the world, including some which have persisted for years, including the displacement of Afghans, refugees in the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa and others.


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