This article situates the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) within the context of world politics. States remain the predominant actors in the international political system. But this does not mean that international organizations like the UNHCR are completely without power or influence. Tracing the evolution of the agency over the past half century, this article argues that while the UNHCR has been constrained by states, the notion that it is a passive mechanism with no independent agenda of its own is not borne out by the empirical evidence of the past 50 years. Rather UNHCR policy and practice have been driven both by state interests and by the office acting independently or evolving in ways not expected nor necessarily sanctioned by states.