International Refugee Organization
Organisation internationale pour les réfugiés
Organización Internacional para los Refugiados
Internacia Organizaĵo pri Rifuĝintoj
Alternative Refugee Organization

Flag of IRO. Only flow in the offices of the IRO. In all other cases the protective symbol is used.

Working languages used by IRO English, Spanish, German, French, Chinese Mandarin and Esperanto
Other languages used Arabic, Russian and Japanese
Headquarters Executive Directorate and Secretariat Geneva, Switzerland
Establishment 1929 (Refugee Convention 1929)

The International Refugee Organization (IRO) is an autonomous international organization collaborating with the League of Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Established by the Refugee Convention of 1929, it replaces the Commission for Refugees of the League of Nations. Its first Director-General was the Norwegian explorer, scientist and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen.

Initially the Commission for Refugees was mandated to assist the persons who fled the Russian Revolution of 1918 and the subsequent civil war (1918–1920). Later expanded to include ethnic minorities fleeing the Turkish Civil War and Armenians. Another resolution of the LoN included Assyrians and Turkish refugees. In all of these cases, a refugee was defined as a person in a group for which the League of Nations had approved a resolution, as opposed to a person to whom a general definition might apply.

However inadequate funding, rising numbers of refugees and the refusal by League members to let the Commission assist their own citizens or others made it inadequate and limited in its task. The general consensus inside the Commission and some governments was that a more permanent body with wider powers and resources was required to oversee global refugee issues. The immigration restrictions and quotas being establish by most countries in the 1920s also made it necessary to establish other means of repatriation. Natural disasters like the Great Kantō earthquake (1923), Great Mississippi Flood (1927) and Xining earthquake (1929) also showed the need of international cooperation in disaster relief. The Chinese civil wars, since 1916, marked the need of a more permanent actions and funding in the work of the Commission. Nansen and collaborators championed the need to establish an independent international organization sanction by an international treaty in the style of the Red Cross. Thanks to the cooperation and good offices of Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and financial pledge from the United States and Pan-American Union, it was called a conference of plenipotentiaries in Geneva for August 1929. After a month, the Conference approves the Refugee Convention and assigned to the Swiss state the role of custodian of the treaty and to call future conferences to revise it.

After the Convention

Its first major mission was the Great Salmas Earthquake of Iran (1930), where along other aid organizations it helped in survivors relocation. In 1930 the Huang He and Yangtze River floods of China reorganized the National Committee of China, adding it a Response Center for Disasters, and the agreement with all governments of China in establishing a Central National Register of Displaced Persons. This was specially helpful because of the ongoing struggle in China until 1935 and the displacement of people. Also, the Executive Directorate voted to have Chinese Mandarin has one of its working languages.

Other important natural disasters on which the IRO helped where the Bihar (1934) and Balochistan (1935), Chillan (1939), Erincan (1939) earthquakes.

The Second Sino-Japanese War and Great Pacific War marked the coming of age of the IRO.

Roles of the IRO

Protective Symbol Refugees

Protective Symbol (Refugee Convention, 1929)

Under the Convention, refugees are individuals who:

  • are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence;
  • have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and
  • are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.

It also includes asylum seekers, refugees who have returned home but still need help in rebuilding their lives, local civilian communities directly affected by the movements of refugees, stateless people and so-called internally displaced people (IDPs). IDPs are civilians who have been forced to flee their homes, but who have not reached a neighboring country and therefore, unlike refugees, are not protected by international law and may find it hard to receive any form of assistance. Having its background in civil wars and natural disasters the Convention includes them. Therefore it is the role of the IRO to protect and provide humanitarian assistance to what it describes as other persons "of concern," including internally-displaced persons (IDPs). The convention guarantees the right of asylum, sanctuary, resettlement and the principle of non-refoulement. The IRO is entrusted with the legal and political protection of persons who are its concern. The Convention creates a protective sign to be shown in all field facilities administered by the IRO or that fulfill the role of refugee shelter and sanctuary.

The main purpose of the IRO is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. The IRO is entrusted with the legal and political protection of persons who are its concern. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. All actions of the IRO and collaborators, has stated in the Convention, apply regardless of race, religion, economic or educational status and political opinions. It also to assist victims and governments in natural or man made disasters. An agreement with the International Red Cross and Red Cross societies allows cross cooperation and services when necessary.

The IRO is economically and administratively independent of the League of Nations and open to all countries that sign the Convention of Refugees. The IRO is allowed to establish cooperation and joint missions with the International Red Cross Committee and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. The main source of funding are the governments and private organizations has signatories and members of the Refugee Convention. Once a year, in August since 1933, it launches a public awareness campaign and appeal to collect voluntary contributions from individuals. Locally the IRO appoints National Committees to administer and manage all the resources necessary to deal with refugees and help governments. The Convention grants open access to all staff of the IRO in the signatory countries.

The IRO administers the International Registry of Refugees, issues the refugee travel document (popularly called the Nansen passport) and certificates of identity. The IRO organizes and manages the displaced persons camps, refugee camp and disaster relief camps. The latter in cooperation with the Red Cross. Giving the following services:

  • Sleeping accommodations (tents)
  • Hygiene facilities (cleaning and toilets)
  • Medical supplies and assistance
  • Communication equipment (e.g. radio)
  • Protection from bandits (e.g. barriers, checkpoints).


Its membership is open to all countries that have signed the Convention and private and international organizations that have signed collaboration protocols with the IRO. According to the Statue of the IRO, that is annexed to the Refugee Convention, the highest organ of decisions is the Conference. It meets every 4 years in Geneva to discuss and approve the guidelines of the IRO and elect the Executive Directorate and the Director General of the IRO. It also reviews the table of contributions, approves the general guidelines of the budget and votes the incorporation of new members that are not parties to the Convention of Refugees. The working languages of the IRO are English, Spanish, German, French, Chinese Mandarin and Esperanto.

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