The United Nations Refugee Agency
1986 Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Fraternity among Peoples
At the end of the first and second world wars, the nations formerly at war began reconstructing the international community in terms of a new legal and moral order. Among other things, this led to the League of Nations, the United Nations Organization, the Council of Europe, the European Common Market, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Treaty of November 4, 1950, which sought to safeguard the rights of all human beings, «regardless of sex, race, colour, language, religion or national and social origin».
The will, however, to achieve the respect of these fundamental humanitarian principles so manifest in the aforementioned mandates, declarations and others still, has not yet entirely come to be. There is much left to be clone. In fact, the two postwar periods have witnessed continual strife, economic and social upheaval and the unprecedented enforced and unconsenting displacement of whole populations with the subsequent breaking up of many families. Men and women of all ages and back grounds, victims of such situations, have been obliged to seek salvation elsewhere, fleeing their homelands, defenseless and impoverished, confronting overwhelming difficulties of integration in national communities whose language, culture and customs were completely alien and to which dubious hospitality was also a frequent condition.
Inadequate protection and relief aggravated an untold number of individual and family tragedies where even the dimmest sense of human compassion could not remain unmoved. The collective affliction of these refugees immediately made its painful plight known to the responsible attention of governments and leading international organizations. In 1921 already, the League of Nations created an Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees with Fridtjof Nansen appointed to direct it. In 1931, this Office of the High Commissioner was transformed into the International Committee for Refugees and again in 1948, into the International Organization for Refugees (l.0.R.). At last, on December 3, 1949, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to establish the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, effective January 1, 1951, with the aim of procuring asylum, legal protection, and material relief. A colossal task rendered constantly more difficult to accomplish due to ever increasing need and the progressive noncompliance and disrespect of the lifesaving right of asylum in many parts of the world, a right proclamed in the universal declaration of human rights. Outbreaks of violent xenophobia further complicated the undertaking. To meet such enormous requirements, it was necessary to create an organizational and operational framework able to evolve in its complexity and adjust to increasing expenditures. In this regard, it must be underlined that the Office of the High Commissioner is not financially bound to the United Nations. Its budget requirements are exclusively funded either by voluntary contributions from member countries to the Geneva Treaty of July 28, 1951, regarding the legal status of refugees, or by private organizations.
The status of the Office of the High Commissioner establishes among other things that, (it would do well remind this), the activities of this Office are «exclusively humanitarian and social in nature, having no political character nor reason». These statutes were approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 14, 1950 and were followed by the abovementioned Treaty of July 28, 1951. These documents empower the Office of the High Commissioner to act compellingly in favour of any person having been forced to flee his or her country of origin or habitual place of residence for fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
The High Commissioner’s annual reports present the complete array of the vast accomplishments to date, the great difficulties encountered, and the results achieved. In short, the Office of the High Commissioner has continued its work, making certain that refugees obtain the right of asylum and the legal status of protection in the countries giving them shelter; it continues to assure the possibility of getting a paying job, housing, schooling, medical and social assistance and the guarantee to be neither deported nor forcibly repatriated. The Office of the High Commissioner has, how ever, aided the voluntary repatriation and reinsertion of refugees in their homelands. On numerous occasions, it acted by providing means of subsistence and medicine directly.
Apart from direct relief operations which in 1983 alone, represented an expenditure of 411.2 million dollars, the Office of the High Commissioner has also had to work unremittingly on diplomatic levels to improve and complete the standards and agreements established by the international community for the protection of refugees; in fact, some states have begun to restrict or refuse asylum for fear of antagonizing their bilateral relations with refugees’ countries of origin, or else they have only granted temporary asylum. Many states have furthermore become more and more reluctant to recognize the particular status of refugees and consider them rather as simple «foreigners». In addition to these disquieting facts, the personal safety of refugee continues to be threatened and is violated by acts of piracy, the refusal to come to the rescue at sea and by military raids on refugee camps. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties deriving from international frictions, the Office of the High Commissioner has, from its onset, incalculably helped millions of refugees pick up the pieces and start new lives. It has thus also contributed to slowing down the waves of clandestine immigration and reducing the well-known inherent threats to the internal security of host countries.
The fundamentals of peace, namely, the ideals of humanity and brotherhood among peoples, have inspired and guided the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in the entirety of its work. These same ideals are explicitly set forth in articles 2 and 3 of the Balzan Foundation’s governing statutes.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has worked to alleviate one of the most painful situations nowadays afflicting mankind, confronting this ad adversity with devotion and – great ability and obtaining concrete results second to none.