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Exploring the challenges faced by UNHCR in balancing the political and strategic interests of states and the rights of refugees

UNHCR / H J Davies / 2005

During the past few years academics based at or associated with the RSC – and previously at the Centre for International Studies and the Global Economic Governance Programme at the University of Oxford – have undertaken a significant programme of research on UNHCR and international cooperation on refugees. The principal researchers have been Gil Loescher, Alexander Betts and RSC Research Associate James Milner. All three researchers are recognised experts on UNHCR and have had considerable experience working at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva and in the field.  

This project explores how UNHCR is situated between the constraints and challenges of the interests and priorities of states and other actors in the international system and its own normative agenda of promoting refugee protection and access to solutions. It explains how UNHCR has attempted to reconcile these competing claims, how it has institutionally adapted over time to address new problems, and how it might adapt in the future to meet emerging challenges in refugee protection and world politics.

The research critically assesses both the positive and negative consequences of past change and adaptation in the organisation and engages in new thinking about how UNHCR might better adapt to address the ongoing tension between the political and strategic interests of states and upholding the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. The project also explores under what conditions international cooperation on refugee issues is likely to be successful.

Building on Professor Loescher’s seminal book The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path and Dr Betts’ Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime, the project has generated a further two books: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the 21st Century first published in 2008 and then a largely revised new edition on the occasion of UNHCR’s 60th anniversary in 2012.

The project’s findings have been presented and discussed in numerous academic and policy forums including the International Studies Association Annual meetings and the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration. These books are also used in university courses on refugee studies around the world and for training purposes for UNHCR staff. In addition, the project’s researchers continue to publish numerous other articles and book chapters on UNHCR including in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and Oxford Handbook on International Organizations.

During the past decade, the project’s co-researchers have received financial support for their work on UNHCR and international cooperation from the US Institute of Peace, the Ford Foundation, the Global Economic Governance Programme at the University of Oxford, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Our team

Selected publications