“… the world suffers endless distress, and thousands starve to death every single day, and no one really does anything to help […] Something must be done, something serious and comprehensive, and not just talk, talk, talk.”

Fridtjof Nansen, in a letter to Sigrun Munthe, 1919

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Compassion in action


Picture of the welcoming committee for Fridtjof Nansen at the railway station in Kharkiv.

Photo: Fridtjof Nansen and the welcoming committee at the railway station in Kharkiv, 28.01.1923. The National Library of Norway, 6d180.


In 1922, Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding humanitarian efforts after the First World War. After the war, Nansen was engaged in international, peace-building initiatives. He earned the Peace Prize for his work to repatriate prisoners of war, his efforts to prevent famine in Russia, his commitment to refugees, and not least his urgent appeal to the world about compassion as a motivating and life-enhancing force.

For Nansen, the answer was simple: When someone suffers distress, you help.

Picture of starving people at a camp in Samara (Kuibyshev) in 1921.

Photo: Starving people at a camp in Samara (Kuibyshev) warm themselves by the fire after a rain shower, 1921. The National Library of Norway, 6a100.

Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) is one of Norway's most famous personalities of all time – a renowned researcher, athlete, polar hero, statesman and diplomat. His expeditions on skis over Greenland (1888–89) and towards the North Pole with the polar ship Fram (1893–96) gained him hero status and a unique position in Norway.

Nansen was the League of Nation's first High Commissioner for Refugees, and his work laid the foundation for much of today’s refugee law. The Nansen passport - an identity document for stateless refugees - gave refugees basic rights such as border crossing, housing and marriage.

"No realpolitik in a civilized society is conceivable without a basis in compassion, reciprocity, helpfulness, trust," he wrote in 1922.

Picture of the Red Cross station for prisoners of war in Narva, Ivangorod fortress.

Photo: Post-war period - Narva, Ivangorod fortress. Red Cross station for Russian prisoners of war repatriated from Germany and German prisoners coming from Russia. ICRC Archives, V-P-HIST-03061-35.

What did Nansen see in Europe after the First World War, and what did he do to help?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continues the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen.

Today, 100 million people are displaced around the world. They include migrants, refugees, stateless people and internally displaced persons fleeing war, famine and abuse.

The UNHCR was itself awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981. The organization leads and coordinates international efforts to protect refugees. UNHCR awards an annual international prize named after Fridtjof Nansen.

 Overview picture of refugee camp.

Photo: Sahel (Mali). © Nacer Talel / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.

Who are helping refugees today?

Five winners of the Nansen Refugee Award the last 10 years

“We don’t give up, we still have hope.”

Evan Atar Adaha, winner of Nansen Refugee Award 2018

How can you help displaced people and refugees?