Protection is the art of possible’: Relations between UNHCR and the United States in the 1980s – The case of displaced Salvadorans.

UNHCR is often depicted as an agency highly influenced by the United States and the West during the Cold War. On the other hand, authors have insisted on the relative gradual emancipation process from great powers’ control experienced by UNHCR since 1951. In this context, this article asks how far the UN Refugee Agency could go in “criticizing” the United States or signaling a disapproval of US policies when warranted. What was the Agency’s margin of action? To address these questions on the basis of recently declassified UNHCR documents, this article focuses on the case of displaced Salvadorans in the US and the American policy of deporting them back to their country of origin. Protection being the “art of possible”, it is shown that UNHCR developed strategies designed to gather information on the plight of displaced Salvadorans and press the Reagan Administration on this issue. While the UN Refugee agency was obviously not in a position to coerce the US Government, it nevertheless did all it could to fulfill its humanitarian mandate, in a clear Cold War context.

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