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About the International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology


The International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology is intended as a tool for use by organizations that process information concerning refugees.

Using a standardized terminology to index refugee-related information, whether in printed, audio-visual or electronic format, facilitates information retrieval and exchange. Structuring that terminology into thesaurus form, which shows how the terms relate to each other, assists both indexing and retrieval by allowing the selection of the most appropriate terms.


The Thesaurus grew out of the Draft Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology compiled in English for the UNHCR by Piers Campbell in 1986. In 1988, the then chief of the UNHCR Centre for Documentation on Refugees (CDR), Hans Thoolen, invited Jean Aitchison, a respected expert in the field of thesauri, to provide the technical expertise for the revision and restructuring of this draft. She worked closely with the CDR and with an international working group, and the result of their collaboration was the first edition of the International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology, in three separate language editions, published in 1989. The Spanish version was translated by the Latin American Information Center on Migration (CIMAL) in Santiago de Chile and published by the Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos (IIDH) in Costa Rica. The French edition was translated by Documentation Réfugiés in Paris and published by La Documentation française (France). The English edition was published by UNHCR.

Thesauri are living tools that reflect growth and change in their specialized subject area. The International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology has continued to grow and change.

From the beginning of its life, its users have been actively encouraged to provide feedback. At the Conference on the Future of the International Refugee Documentation Network (Crete, 8-9 May 1992) it was decided to create a new International Thesaurus Working Group, coordinated by CDR, that would be responsible for all decisions on issues related to the thesaurus. The Group decided to publish a second edition.

A special task force of four members, including Jean Aitchison, was established in 1994 to discuss suggestions for additions, changes and deletions put forward by the Working Group. The recommendations of the Task Force were studied by the International Working Group at a meeting in Geneva in November 1994. The resulting second edition was published in 1996. The introduction and updates of the French version were translated by Documentation Réfugiés in Paris and of the Spanish version by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). All three language versions of the second edition were published by UNHCR. A Russian version was published in 1998.

Upon the retirement of Jean Aitchison, another thesaurus expert, Anne Di Lauro, was engaged to oversee the transfer of the thesaurus to a database that could be updated using thesaurus management software* to update the database with the additions and changes requested by the Task Force, and to suggest a revised structure that would simplify future updating and render the thesaurus more user-friendly.

A meeting of the Task Force took place in Geneva in September 1997 to consider suggestions from users for additions and changes to the second edition and these were consequently incorporated into the new database.

The new structure, in which the systematic display would be replaced by a simpler classification scheme, was approved by the Task Force over a series of meetings in 2000 and 2001. At these meetings, the Task Force also proposed further additions and changes to descriptors.

Meanwhile, in 2001, CDR's Thesaurus work was taken over by the UNHCR Library which made the transition to a new software for managing its databases - AIRS (Advanced Information Retrieval System) from Digitech, France.

At the end of 2001, the thesaurus database was converted to AIRS to facilitate its interface with the other CDR databases and to make it available in electronic format within the UNHCR electronic network.

This third edition, then, marks the transition of the Thesaurus to the twenty-first century.

The terminology used and the presentation of material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNHCR concerning the legal status of a territory or of its authorities.

* Multilingual Thesaurus Management software (MTM3), created by the OECD for use with UNESCO's Mini-Micro CDS/ISIS and available free of charge to non-profit organizations. This online edition is powered by ToadHMS by Oxford ArchDigital