Refugee Saviors – UNHCRs: From Goedhart to Aga Khan to Grandi

UNHCRs’ champion the plight of refugees: From Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to António Guterres to Filippo Grandi.

In memoriam of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s birthday (Jan 17th). The impact of Prince Sadruddin and his peer UNHCRs’ work in fighting for the peoples without voices, sadly often neglected, but never forgotten by the UNHCR.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, is a United Nations agency mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland and is a member of the United Nations Development Group. The UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes, once in 1954 and again in 1981.

The UN refugee agency has had 11 High Commissioners since it was established in 1950.

UNHCRS' champion the plight of refugees: From Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to Filippo Grandi

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the highly cultured cosmopolitan, used his position to cajole governments into more funding. For 12 years he reoriented the agency’s focus beyond Europe, shaming the world into watching the plight of Bangladeshi refugees after the breakup of Pakistan, the Asians evicted by Idi Amin in Uganda, those fleeing Pinochet’s Chile, and the human fallout from the breakup of Cyprus.


UNHCRS' champion the plight of refugees: From Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to Filippo Grandi
1966-12-06, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, presenting his report on the Status of Refugees to the Third Committee. (Image credit: United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law)

The UNHCR is unique within the UN system for the demands it places on the role of leadership (in legal, diplomatic, programmatic, and public relation functions) and the personality of its leader.

In November 2015, veteran Italian humanitarian Filippo Grandi was appointed as new High Commissioner for Refugees. His tenure begins today (January 1, 2016).

Filippo Grandi will carry on this tradition with panache. As Secretary General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he was compelled to demonstrate extreme political delicacy.


… A refugee’s journey is not a purely physical voyage from A to B; every individual must find deepest reserves of strength, hope, and courage to make it.

 If refugees are insecure, then so too are the hosts into whose homes they have entered and whose resources they are sharing. Talking about social welfare for refugees — food, shelter, education, healthcare, counseling — necessarily requires asking it for hosts too. Can a refugee be free from “need” if they are excluded from the job market? What do we even mean by “need” anyway?

… Waiting is the given of this life. A refugee experience is not defined by the act of fleeing but by the long, drawn-out hours, stretching into years, of uncertainty. Waiting for registration, for food parcels, for asylum acceptance, for the war to end. A daily grind of queues.


… Humanitarian agencies act as the janitors of the world. “Some political leaders believe that they can trigger conflicts because then the humanitarians will come and clean up the mess,” António Guterres, the outgoing High Commissioner (2005–2016), has said. “We are no longer able to clean up the mess, to pick up the pieces.” The peace and security regime, led by the Security Council and established at the end of the Second World War, is failing. Four of the five permanent SC members are directly involved in the Syria and Iraq conflicts.

UNHCRS' champion the plight of refugees: From Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to Filippo Grandi
His Highness the Aga Khan, visited UNHCR headquarters today to meet UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and discuss past and future cooperation in emergency operations around the world. (image credit: The Ismaili)

Remaining “relevant” is a concern for most intergovernmental organizations. In theory the UNHCR should not have this anxiety — the list of people under its concern continues to grow year-on-year.

Today it eclipses 60 million.

And yet the decreasing appetite among states to grant asylum space, shrinking aid budgets, refusal to connect conflict with human spillage, and condemning of protracted refugee situations to recesses of collective minds makes the UNHCR something of the elephant in the room. There are other actors at play now too, not all of them tangible — climate change, urbanization, fragmenting power bases and their reconfiguration down private networks, non-state actors, explosions in communication. “Syria is the canary in the coalmine,” said Guterres. Whether the UNHCR will be permitted the funds and space to stand up to this reality is a pressing concern.

By Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Beirut, currently working on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Discover, Explore & Learn more  via LA Review of Books | UNHCR Chief: Election of a Bureaucrat

Accelerate your Awareness via these 3 YouTube videos

Research, Insight & Perspective by A. Maherali

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