Refugee Council of Australia
Michelle Bachelet in front of blue UN logo background

Refugees and international law



The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) leads and coordinates international action for the protection of refugees and for the resolution of refugee problems.Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees and seek lasting solutions to their plight. It is also responsible for internally displaced people, stateless people and former refugees who have returned home. Together, these people are generally called ‘persons of concern’ to UNHCR.


The office was established by the UN General Assembly in 1950, after the end of World War II, to help millions of displaced Europeans. It is an independent and impartial office. Its budget and operations are entirely funded by donors, with 86% of its funding from governments and the European Union . It is responsible both to the General Assembly and to an intergovernmental body known as the Executive Committee for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (ExCom). There are 98 member States of ExCom.

What does it do?

The UNHCR conducts many activities, including:

Where does it spend its money?

More than 80% of the UNHCR’s $7 billion budget is spent on field operations , mostly spent in the Middle East and North Africa (often called the ‘MENA’ region) and Africa. Only 9% of the budget is spent in the Asia-Pacific region , which includes Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

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