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United Nations

UN at 70: from aspiration to action

Humanitarian Action in the Aftermath of WWII

“Recently--a few days ago I heard Mr. McDougall representing the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations tell you about the needs of these countries, the shortage of food. He was telling you about calories. Now, Gentlemen, please don’t go off on calories. What these countries need is not a dietician. They need a Quartermaster. They need the food...” Address by Fiorello  H. LaGuardia, Director-General of UNRRA to the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) of the First Session of the United Nations General Assembly on 11 November 1946.

Following the defeat of Germany and Japan, tens of millions of refugees, displaced persons and prisoners of war struggled to survive in the face of extreme devastation and shortages of food, fuel clothing and essential goods. Many had nowhere to go, and could not return to their homes, now occupied by survivors and former enemies as desperately in need as they. Throughout the post-war period, the United Nations worked with Member States to find solutions for the resettlement of Jewish Holocaust survivors, stateless persons and refugees.

Between 1943 and 1947, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) distributed approximately US$4 billion worth of goods, food, medicine, tools, and farm implements to devastated areas. In April 1946, the newly founded United Nations took over the work of UNRRA and created the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1947. IRO was charged with dealing with the refugee problem created by WWII in areas controlled by Western Armies of occupation. IRO ceased operations in 1952 and was replaced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Memorandum to Sir Raphael Cilento, Director for Social Activities

Memorandum from the Section of Refugees and Displaced Persons to Sir Raphael Cilento, Director for Social Activities, June 1947. The memo suggests a reorganisation of the structure of the UN refugees and stateless persons programme and to bring the matter to the UN Economic and Social Council.

Draft ECOSOC Document





















Annotated document for the Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the International Refugees Organization’s address to the UN Economic and Social Council in 1948.

Briefing at the UNRRA Mobilization and Training Centre

UNRRA personnel being briefed at the UNRRA Mobilization and Training Centre at Granville in France, 1946. Between 1943 and 1946, UNRRA recruited  more than 10,000 highly specialised staff from at least 43 nations. These employees took an oath to adhere to the ideal of international service and agreed to abstain from any act of discrimination on account of race, nationality, creed, or political belief.

Statistics on refugees

A table showing the distribution of refugees and Stateless Persons  in Europe as of 30 June 1947.

Chinese refugees, 1946

Chinese refugees, 1946. At the end of WWII, some 15,000 Chinese Displaced Persons were dispersed throughout Europe and Asia, with the largest concentrations in Calcutta and Singapore.

Letter reporting on the status of Chinese displaced persons

A letter from the Chinese representative to the UN Economic and Social Council to the Division of Refugees reporting on the status Chinese displaced persons, 22 October 1946.

Reconstruction by UNRRA personnel


UNRRA personnel help rebuild a town in Italy, August 1946. Among difficulties faced by inhabitants is water shortage, as only a trickle of water arrives at the fountain. The lines of cans mark the owner’s places as they wait for their turn. UNRRA helped restore the town aqueduct which was destroyed during the fighting.

Letters between a refugee and UNRRA

Letters exchanged between Miklos Tennenbaum, a Jewish refugee in an Italian camp wishing to immigrate to the United States, and Pierce Williams, United Nations Director of Refugees and Displaced Persons. June 1947.

Newspaper clipping describing financial woes of the IRO

New York Times article, 23 June 1947, describes the financial woes of the International Refugees Organization (IRO) at its inception as it prepares to take over the role of UNRRA in June 1947. Although funding has been pledged by Member States to support the IRO’s work, millions of dollars are needed immediately to continue providing food and shelter for refugees in Europe.

Cable confirming that emergency funding will be provided to the IRO

United Nations cable 25 June 1947 which confirms that emergency funding will be provided to the International Refugees Organization (IRO) through a temporary loan to continue the work of UNRRA. At this point,  IRO status had not been ratified by the required  fifteen Member States and therefore had not received  the necessary financial contributions.

Harry Saunders' suitcase

Harry Saunders was a British Director of Training for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

The Archives and Records Management Section received it in the 1960s. It contains scrapbooks, photographs and interviews with displaced persons, diaries and training materials for UNRRA staff working with refugees in Europe.

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