Archives and Records
A Repository of the Past
Collecting and maintaining archives can pose special challenges for an organization like UNHCR. When militants overran camps in what was then eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) back in 1997, for example, staff had to jam what papers they could into the backs of trucks as they were evacuated. Some material was saved, but not all. The rescued files were later shipped to Geneva, where they now reside in our central archive.
Established in 1996, the archive even includes material that predates the creation of the organization in 1951, documenting more than half a century of field operations around the world, as well as material from our headquarters. It occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva. Digital archives, comprising some 10 million documents and growing, are stored and managed on a handful of dedicated, secure servers.
Materials of historical interest make up about half of the paper archives. The rest, mostly internal documents such as financial reports, is held for several years before being discarded. Digital archives, such as email messages and reports, are also sorted for permanent or short-term preservation.
The collections are globally and historically unique in scope and content. They contain a trove of detail about important historical events, including, for example, records from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the first major emergency in which the UN refugee agency became operational, as well as emergencies in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, and in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They contain originals, for instance, of the letter sent by the late Tunisian leader, Habib Bourguiba, seeking international help for refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Algeria in 1957 - the first plea to UNHCR for help by a country outside Europe. UNHCR is working to bring more material back from the field and to implement state-of-the-art systems for the preservation of digital materials in order to make them more accessible to a broad range of users.
The material is used both by staff and by outside researchers. Records of intractable situations where UNHCR has been working for decades, such as southern Sudan, are drawn on to brief staff as they head out into the field. By opening its archives to the public, UNHCR demonstrates a commitment to transparency regarding its role as a humanitarian agency, and promotes scrutiny and understanding of the troubled contemporary history of our world.