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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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Priorities for UNHCR Today

by Luise DRUKE *

One of the most important organisations operating in the humanitarian aid field is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a fundraising agency headed by Mrs Sadako Ogata of Japan. The European Community and its Member States are the largest contributors to the UN's various refugee relief programmes, run by UNHCR and UNRWA (the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East); and in recent years, partly at the request of the European Parliament and ACP governments, the Community has substantially increased its assistance to refugees and displaced people. In this article a principal administrator at the Brussels office responsible for relations between UNHCR and the European Community institutions reviews the organisation's work.

Each year the demands on UNHCR are greater than the previous year, as it attempts to respond to the escalating number of international crises which continue to produce waves of new refugees and require the mobilisation of major international relief efforts, with an annual operational budget which exceeded US$1 billion last year. Whilst some regions of the world are experiencing a political healing process that has enabled the commencement of repatriation programmes such as those in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan, the outbreak of persecution combined with natural disasters has resulted in the appearance of new refugee populations elsewhere. The most conspicuous examples in this latter case are the desperate situations in the former Yugoslavia and in Somalia, which have produced around three million and one million refugees respectively in a matter of months.

New strategies

Given the differing characteristics of individual refugee problems today, UNHCR has had to search for the most appropriate and effective manner in which to apply its mandate to each situation it encounters and to explore new strategies in order to ensure that persons in need of protection receive it. The High Commissioner, during the 1991 meeting of the Executive Committee, developed a three-pronged strategy to consist of:

- emergency preparedness and response;
- voluntary repatriation; and
- solutions through prevention.

This year, Mrs Ogata has submitted new concepts to the 1992 meeting of the Executive Committee, relating to:

- UNHCR's role in the country of origin for direct and indirect prevention; - solutions involving voluntary repatriation and regionally concerted arrangements, seeking out new directions in international cooperation for the protection of refugees.

Major concerns

The Horn of Africa and the republics of the former Yugoslavia are two of the regions absorbing much of UNHCR's attention, although southern Africa is also a major concern with the one million refugees in Mozambique and Malawi. Repatriation and reintegration programmes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan are requiring a huge effort to ensure the safe and dignified return of millions of refugees previously forced out by persecution and civil war. In Latin America the CIREFCA (the International Conference on Central American Refugees) process is now under way as the restoration of peace to the region has facilitated the return of many thousands of displaced persons.

Material assistance programmes of emergency relief, local integration and repatriation, counselling and legal assistance continue to figure prominently in UNHCR's list of priorities in providing adequate protection to refugees, returnees and displaced persons around the world. However' UNHCR cannot afford to ignore the other essential role it is called upon to play in the field of international protection, which requires ensuring the maintenance of standards as defined in the international legal instruments relating to refugees.


Political and material support from the European Community, individual governments and NGOs is essential to the successful work of UNHCR, which is generally called upon to take the lead in coordinating international humanitarian relief efforts, in consultation with the UN Secretary-General's Department for Humanitarian Affairs in New York. Dependent on a limited subsidy from the regular budget of the United Nations and voluntary contributions from governments, NGOs and individuals, UNHCR's resources are barely sufficient to deal with the most urgent of today's refugee crises and therefore special and emergency operations require additional financing through appeals.

Cooperation with the European Community

The cooperation between UNHCR and the institutions of the European Community in recent years is evolving into a new partnership. Not only has the European Community been a strong advocate for human rights and humanitarian relief in its overseas development policy, but in purely financial terms the Community has increased its commitment to UNHCR from some $2 million a year in the late 1970s to almost $121 million in 1991, whilst continuing to support the work of the World Food Programme, UNRWA and the ICRC through the allocation of substantial sums of money for food aid and emergency relief, reaching a total of $1 billion since 1984 . The steady increase of EC humanitarian aid has been greatly fostered by the European parliament and ACP Governments which led, in the mid-1980s, to the introduction of a specific budget line for refugees and displaced persons.

UNHCR is involved in current discussions with institutions and Member States of the European Community in elaborating common asylum procedures for persons claiming to be refugees, and promoting a wider knowledge and understanding of internationally recognised principles for the treatment of refugees in Europe. This includes, inter alia, the promotion of a new concept of temporary protection to deal with the many individuals today temporarily displaced from their home countries by civil war but who do not require permanent refugee status. In the ACP countries, UNHCR is working with concerned governments and organisations on short-and long-term strategies.

Countries in Africa, Central America and Asia, many of which are ACP Member States - are in fact today the scenes of the major refugee problems. These are the regions where some 95% of the world's 17 million-plus refugees and an equal number of internally displaced persons are to be found. But it is also these regions which have shown the way in coming to grips with their refugee problems. The support of the European Community for the ACP countries and for those involved in these efforts, including UNHCR, has been a crucial factor.


As Mrs Ogata has said, there is no doubt that the world is at a crossroads. Will Europe, and in particular the European Community, help to bridge the abyss which now separates North from South? Will it and the rest of the industralised world have the courage to commit themselves politically and economically to attacking the severe poverty, underdevelopment and social injustice which lead to oppression, violence and displacement?

The path which we follow will create the kind of world we bestow on future generations.