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Archives and Records

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© UNHCR / J. Pagonis

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 (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) back in 1997, for example, staff were forced to jam what papers they could into the backs of trucks before being forced to evacuate. Some material was saved but not all. The rescued files were later shipped to Geneva where they now reside in the organization's central archive.

Established in 1996, the archive includes material from more than half a century of field operations around the world as well as material from headquarters. It occupies about 10 kilometres of shelving space on two basement floors in Geneva's headquarters. Electronic archives, comprising some 7 million documents, are stored and managed in a handful of dedicated, secure servers.

The archives of historical interest make up about one half - or five kilometres - of the paper archives. The remainder, mostly internal documents such as financial reports, is held for a period of several years before being discarded. electronic archives, such as key reports, are also sorted for permanent or short-term preservation.

The archives 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. They contain originals, for example, 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.

The material is used both by staffers 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. Harvard University historian Samantha Power researched much of her 2008 biography of the late former top UNHCR official, Sergio Vieira de Mello, in the UNHCR archives. In the future, the goal is to bring more material back from the field and to expand preservation of electronic materials in order to make them more accessible to a broad range of users.

The Archives Collection

The list of UNHCR records is expanding as more comes from the field and headquarters.

UNHCR Archives Research and Access Policy

Find out how to access UNHCR records.

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60 Years in Photos

For more than six decades UNHCR has been helping the world's uprooted peoples.

The agency's first task was to help an estimated 1 million, mainly European civilians, who remained displaced in the aftermath of World War Two.

But during the 1950s the refugee crisis spread to Africa, later to Asia and then back to Europe, becoming a global problem.

At the end of 2009, on the eve of its 60th birthday, more than 26 million forcibly displaced people were receiving protection or assistance frpm UNHCR. During its lifetime, the agency has assisted more than 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives. More than half of the refugees the agency helps now live in urban areas.

In the past two decades, UNHCR has been helping increasing numbers of internally displaced people as part of an inter-agency approach. UNHCR has also been helping hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the crisis in Iraq, both inside and outside the country. UNHCR also has a mandate to help the world's stateless people, who number an estimated 12 million.

This is a pictorial history of those turbulent years, UNHCR's role and the struggle for survival of one of the world's most vulnerable groups of people.

60 Years in Photos

Hungarian Crisis - 50th Anniversary

The spontaneous Hungarian uprising began on 23 October 1956. Two weeks later, the revolution was crushed by a Soviet military intervention, and by early 1957, 200,000 people had fled as refugees - 180,000 to Austria and 20,000 to Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of volunteers worked alongside international and local aid organizations to provide shelter and food, as the Austrians and the international community provided the refugees with an unprecedented level of support.

UNHCR was made 'Lead Agency' and, along with the Red Cross and ICEM, helped coordinate protection, assistance and a quite extraordinary resettlement programme.

Within two years, more than 180,000 Hungarians were resettled to 37 countries spanning five continents. The US, Canada, the UK, West Germany, Australia, Switzerland, France, Sweden and Belgium each accepted more than 5,000 refugees. Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Brazil, Norway, Denmark, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina all took over 1,000. The rest were spread around a further 19 countries ranging from the Dominican Republic to Turkey. Some Hungarians were integrated in Austria (8,000) and Yugoslavia (700), while 11,000 returned home voluntarily.

More in Refugees Magazine Issue N° 144: Where Are They Now? The Hungarian Refugees, 50 Years On (published October 2006) here

Hungarian Crisis - 50th Anniversary