There are a range of agencies, organisations and processes that influence international responses, including the responses of the Australian Government, to people seeking asylum. This page provides an outline of these key agencies.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The UNHCR was established in the wake of World War II, in December 1950,and is the agency responsible for leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees. Its primary purpose is ‘to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees’. It also has a mandate to help internally displaced and stateless people. The UNHCR has an important role in assisting states to find durable solutions to support refugees to rebuild their lives with dignity and in safety. 

UNHCR monitors asylum claims globally and, where nations do not assess protection claims themselves, can assess claims to determine whether a person has refugee status. Many countries in Southeast Asia, for example, do not have determination systems so the UNHCR is responsible for assessing asylum claims there. 

Millions of people have become refugees because of limited resources and armed conflict so the scope of the UNHCR has expanded into a humanitarian aid organisation providing practical assistance on the ground.

The current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is Filippo Grandi. Mr Grandi became the 11th High Commissioner on 1 January 2016. He was elected by the UN General Assembly to serve a five-year term, until 31 December 2020.

The UNHCR's Regional Representation for the Pacific is based in Canberra and is responsible for the promotion and protection of refugee rights in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and other Pacific nations. The UNHCR Regional Representative for this region is Thomas Albrecht.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)

The UNRWA is a unique agency in that its focus is largely on one group of refugees from a particular region or conflict. It is separate to the UNHCR.

The UNRWA delivers services such as education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance to registered Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, and to their descendants.

Following the Arab–Israeli conflict in 1948, the UNRWA was established by the UN General Assembly and began field operations in May 1950.

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

The IOM works with government, non-government and intergovernmental partners to support humane and orderly migration, promote international cooperation on migration issues, develop practical solutions to migration problems and provide humanitarian assistance. 

The IOM was established in 1951, in the aftermath of World War II, similar to the UNHCR but outside of the United Nations. At that time, the IOM was mandated to help European governments identify host countries for the estimated 11 million people uprooted by the war and it delivered operational logistics to support migrants to resettle. The scope of IOM has broadened significantly since then due to both man-made and natural disasters. 

From November 2015, the IOM brings together 162 member states, with an additional nine states holding observer status. Australia is a member state.

One project of IOM is the Missing Migrants Project. Since 2013, this Project has been tracking deaths of migrants and those who have gone missing along migratory routes globally.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

The OHCHR is the principal United Nations office mandated to promote and protect human rights. It has an interest across a vastly wide range of human rights issues, one of which is the rights of migrants.

The OHCHR provides a global forum for identifying and developing responses to human rights challenges. It also provides a focus point for human rights research, education, public information and advocacy activities in the United Nations system. 

The OHCHR provides assistance to governments to support the implementation of international human rights standards. The OHCHR also assists individuals to realise their rights and other entities with responsibility to protect human rights to fulfil their obligations.

The OHCR also supports the work of the United Nations human rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies, or committees. Treaty bodies are established to monitor State Parties' compliance with the core international human rights treaties. Under certain conditions, treaty bodies can consider individual complaints, for example the Committee against Torture or Human Rights Committee.

United Nations Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system. It is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights as well as addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations about them.

The council was created by the United Nations General Assembly, resolution 60/251, on 15 March 2006. 

The council is made up of 47 United Nations member states, which are elected by the UN General Assembly. The Human Rights Council is distinct from the OHCHR; however, the OHCHR serves to provide technical and secretariat support to this council.

Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants is part of the Human Rights Council’s system of Special Procedures whereby independent human rights experts provide advice and report on particular thematic or country-focused human rights concerns. ‘Special procedures’ refers to both the system as a whole and the individual experts who contribute to it. Special procedures can either be an individual, in this case a Special Rapporteur, or a working group of five members. Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Human Rights Council and serve in a personal capacity, therefore not as an employee of the United Nations.

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants looks at challenges faced by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees as well as ways to overcome these challenges to achieve full and effective protection of their human rights.

As part of special procedures, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants undertakes the following:

  • country visits to analyse the human rights situation at the national level
  • communication with governments asking for clarification and action, seeking information, submitting observations and following up on recommendations
  • thematic studies
  • development of international human rights standards
  • advocacy and raising of public awareness.

Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (the Bali Process)

The Bali Process is a voluntary and non-binding regional forum designed to boost bilateral and regional cooperative efforts against people smuggling and trafficking through technical workshops and increased cooperation between countries. 

The Bali Process has 48 members including UNHCR, IOM and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). There are a further 27 observers to the process. Australia co-founded and co-chairs the Bali Process with Indonesia.

Since its establishment in 2002, the Bali Process has aimed to raise regional awareness of people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime and develop and implement strategies and practical cooperation in response.  

The most recent Bali Process forum was held in March 2016, where the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Australia co-chaired the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the Process.



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Last updated November 2016.