Providing ‘international protection’ to refugees – UNCHR’s mandate lost in interpretation?

Masters thesis for Marthe Sleire Engedahl (Comparative politics, UiB)

Historically high numbers of refugees and the current unwillingness of states to provide refuge to people fleeing persecution have placed the international refugee protection regime under what is often framed as unprecedented pressure. Key refugee protection mechanisms, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the right to seek and enjoy asylum, are being questioned by scholars, immigration authorities and heads of government. In this context, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) aims at fulfilling its 1950 mandate to provide international protection to refugees and delivers assistance and services to millions of displaced people all over the world. Despite being imperative to understanding the scope of the UNHCR’s legal duties and, consequently, the legal entitlements of refugees, the meaning of international protection is left undefined in binding sources of law. Thus, in order to reach a better understanding of UNCHR’s obligations under international law, this thesis aims at answering what the meaning of ‘international protection’ in UNHCR’s mandate really entails. In order to answer the question, I first interpret ‘international protection’ in light of the legal sources available when UNHCR was established in 1950. Secondly, the analysis studies the supplementary source of law that has evolved during UNHCR’s 68 years long history. The thesis concludes that the provision of ‘international protection’, as a minimum, obligates UNHCR to promote the legal recognition under international law through refugee status and to promote physical safety from persecution through access to the territories of states. Finally, the thesis demonstrates that the original two-fold legal obligation of UNHCR seems to have been lost in interpretation. Today, UNHCR’s focus is on less politically contentious activities. This raises considerable concerns related to accountability of UNHCR and the entitlements of refugees.

You can download the whole thesis here.