Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

Last updated on 18 August 2022

Tom Wilson is Associate Archivist at United Nations High Commission for Refugees.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate to support and advocate on behalf of one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the world today. As one of the major issues facing the world today, the plight of refugees, internally displaced people, stateless people and other persons forced to flee is an ever-growing issue. Whilst the title of this post primarily refers to the work of digital preservation, it can also refer to the people that UNHCR supports. The content preserved as part of the work of UNHCR’s Records and Archives Section (RAS) often showcases the resilience of persons forced to flee and how they attempt to continue their lives as best they can under adverse conditions [1].

Why Does UNHCR Archive the Internet?

In the past, UNHCR communicated with the wider world through paper-based methods and publications. Today, the internet has become one of the main mediums that UNHCR communicates through, including both websites and social media accounts. Before the advent of the internet, the paper publications of UNHCR were preserved in the archives as part of the institutional memory, a process that is continued through the archiving of UNHCR’s web-estate. It should however be noted that this work is just one small part of the work that RAS does, and digital preservation is a part of a broader approach to preserving the institutional memory of UNHCR [2].

By capturing web-content to a recognised standard, preserving it, adding metadata, cataloguing it, and making it accessible to the public, RAS adds further value to the archived content [3]. This work allows for transparency and accountability by allowing users to continue accessing content that may have been online for only a short period. This is especially important in cases where a project may only receive funding donations for a set period, or where an emergency arises and resolves in such a short period that the only UNHCR records immediately available to the public and not closed for protection reasons are those on social media.

Another reason that RAS captures and preserves internet content is that the emergence of social media as a form of communication allows persons forced to flee to communicate with the wider world in a much more direct way. This can include blog posts and sharing the stories of people forced to flee, sometimes through web-based platforms provided by UNHCR to help this content reach a wider audience [4] [5] [6]. This also means that persons forced to flee can tell their own stories in their own words, rather than having to go through an intermediary, such as a news outlet. It is important that this content is also preserved so that the narrative of UNHCR’s history is told through multiple viewpoints, including the people that UNHCR serves. This is important when a lot of the narrative that the wider world may see comes from news outlets, etc. and may only be a short soundbite or video clip.

Resilience to change

As websites and social media platforms become ever more complicated to capture, RAS’s digital preservation team continues to adapt to be able to capture this content as effectively as possible.

For the more minor or gradual changes to UNHCR’s websites, we can liaise with the site owners and our web-archiving supplier to ensure that the crawlers are as effective as possible during the captures, whilst also avoiding any actions that might cause issues for the day to day running of the sites. It is important to make sure that the site owners are kept informed and given the chance to feedback on any issues arising during crawls and keeping them on side facilitates the whole process of capture and adaption. Technological change is undoubtably the biggest challenge we face, but if the site owners refuse to give permission to crawl this is decidedly problematic!

RAS have also had to adapt to external challenges. When Meta group blocked crawlers from capturing content from its platforms, we had to rethink our approach to capturing and preserving content from UNHCR’s social media accounts. We discovered that Facebook and Instagram allow account owners to download the data from their accounts in html or JSON format, so this offered us a way to continue preserving the content. Another way that RAS are adapting to ensure that our digital preservation strategy remains resilient to change is through working towards implementing 360-degree capture to ensure joined up preservation, capturing all records related to a project or activity. This content is then processed to document the actions taken to capture and preserve this data, including liaising with content owners to record key information at the point of transfer. RAS also takes steps to ensure that the integrity of the data is preserved, by performing checksums, recording preservation actions and by storing the content in an approved digital preservation system.


In conclusion, UNHCR’s Records and Archives Section continues to adapt its approach to capturing web-based content to remain resilient to the ever-changing nature of the content and the work of UNHCR. By implementing new methods of capture, working with content owners and web-archiving suppliers, we seek to ensure that this content is effectively captured and preserved for future generations. The next big challenge for the web-archive will be how this content can be made accessible to new forms of investigation and use by researchers, such as big data analysis.

Finally, I would like to return to the observation I made at the start of this post, that the title primarily refers to the work of digital preservation, but it can also refer to the people that UNHCR supports. The adversity faced by RAS is of a different nature and much lower severity than that faced by persons forced to flee, so I make this link not to compare our work, but as a reminder of why we do the work that we do. So, it is for this reason we continue to adapt in the face of adversity. 

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