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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentRefugees and displaced people
View the documentRefugee women
View the documentDevelopment-induced displacement
View the documentFleeing environmental devastation in the Sahel
View the documentIs there a refugee-specific education?
View the documentRefugee participation
View the documentRefugee assistance: a common approach
View the documentDefending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century
View the documentMozambican refugees and their brothers' keepers
View the documentThe European Union's asylum policy: control, prevention, integration
View the documentAsylum procedures in the KU: towards a lowest common denominator
View the documentA European response to the global refugee crisis
View the documentRefugees from the former Yugoslavia - The view from Germany
View the documentDeveloping early warning systems
View the documentChallenging the assumptions of repatriation
View the documentAfrican hospitality takes the strain
View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Developing early warning systems

by Sharon Rusu

To address complex humanitarian emergencies and to provide effective solutions to displacement as a result of war, internal conflict, human rights violations and disintegrating economic and social structures are the major challenges for humanitarian organisations today. In the last six years. dramatic changes have taken place on a global scale In order to meet present and future demands, traditional approaches must be reviewed in light of new strategies.

In a recent briefing note. UNHCR identified the protection challenge for the 1990s as the need to achieve a balance between the requirement 'to retain and strengthen the international protection regime... around the key concepts of asylum and non-refoulement. while also developing a new regime to provide a principled conceptual and operational base to protect civilians uprooted in conflict and post-conflict situations... This challenge involves such issues as the minimum standard of treatment of internally displaced persons. temporary protection statelessness; and the gap between the narrow interpretations of the 1951 Convention and the more liberal OAU Refugee Convention and Cartegena Declaration concepts.' Clearly, the critical question for the Office is how to preserve and strengthen the commitment to asylum while addressing the new challenges posed by complex humanitarian emergencies.

Here, information systems are called for that support preparedness and response mechanisms. Information that addresses root causes is also critical for the prevention of flight and for ensuring solutions if and when movements and displacement occur In addition, information for the resolution of pre-conflict and post-conflict situations is crucial to addressing long-term solutions and ensuring remedies for the legitimate rights of the dispossessed. Only information that is reliable and timely will provide the sufficient. solid base for informed decision-making. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of early warning.

Early warning and alert systems already exist within the UN system, alongside a number of systems, programmes and research at the academic and national levels. These systems include, for agriculture, the Global Information and Early Warning System on Food; for atomic radiation, the WMO/IAEA Convention of Early Notification of Nuclear Accidents; for the environment, the UN System-wide Earthwatch; for geophysical concerns, the International Tsunami Warning System and the Global Volcanism Network; for health, the Epidemiological Early Warning System; for humanitarian problems, the Humanitarian Early Warning Systems; for meteorological issues, the World Weather Watch Programme; for refugees and mass population movements, the Global Early Warning System for Displaced Persons. On the research side, two of the best known systems are PIOOM-Risk of Political and Humanitarian Crises; and CAS, an Econometric Model for Assessing Country Susceptibility to Conflict Escalation and Conflict Alert System.

Recognising the need for information systems that support preparedness and coordinated responses to emergencies, UNHCR currently participates in UN initiatives to establish an early warning system that will provide the humanitarian agencies with vital information regarding the potential for movements at the country level. These efforts are being coordinated by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), New York, whose Humanitarian Early Warning System is the subject of intense efforts to make it operational in the near future.

At the same time, an Inter-Agency Consultation on New Flows of Refugees and Displaced Persons takes place monthly. chaired by the DHA, Geneva. These meetings have proven particularly effective in bringing together focal points from the major humanitarian agencies to review and discuss country situations. and to offer recommendations to the Secretary-General on new and emerging potential for population displacement. The UNHCR plays, and will continue to play, a lead role in these meetings as a result of its operational capacity and its information summaries on potential 'hot spots'.

At the NGO level, a new initiative, provisionally called RELIEFNET, has effectively brought together the US State Department, DHA and NGOs involved in humanitarian relief to address. inter alia. the need for an effective system of information, communication and exchange for the purposes of early warning. Whether this, along with existing systems, will result in the establishment of a global one that brings together the various actors concerned, in a combined and cooperative effort to avert new population displacements, by addressing root causes and preventing the escalation of conflicts through early intervention and mediation, is a question which has still to be answered Among the other questions that continue to be asked are;

-what is early warning?;
-what is the nature and extent of the information necessary for an effective early warning system?;
-how can such information be used, in the context of prevention and preparedness, for coordinating humanitarian assistance?;
-who is it that is being warned, and;
-once identified, how can be sure that they are listening?

These are compound questions to complex issues but they reveal the frustrations that surround attempts to develop early warning models and corresponding practical inforrnation systems for their implementation. Responding to the implications raised by each of these questions is beyond the scope of this brief essay, which concentrates instead on UNHCR's experience with its own information programme.

In fulfilling its responsibility to provide international protection to refugees, UNHCR needs to have credible and trustworthy information at its fingertips. particularly regarding conditions in countries which are the source of population displacements. Such information gives credibility to its decision- and policymaking processes, and ensures that the actions taken by the Office are both readily defensible and more likely to be oriented to effective solutions This in turn lends authority to the recommendations or positions of principle adopted by UNHCR, for example, in its relations with States, other international organisations, and the public and NGO constituencies.

According to its Statute, UNHCR's work is to be humanitarian and social, but also non-political. Its primary responsibility is to provide international protection to refugees UNHCR's information policy, therefore, must seek to maintain a balance between these objectives, particularly when they may be in tension. For these reasons, the information relating to conditions in specific countries that may be disseminated internally or externally will not reflect an opinion within UNHCR Rather, it will represent the best available, authoritative evidence and will not pretend to be conclusive as to the existence of refugee-producing conditions.

With respect to sources of information, UNHCR is in principle committed to the use of publicly available material, subject to the integration of internal documentation at some future point. Publicly available information, provided it is gathered and used on the basis of coherent standards, has the advantage of being open to review and verification. Although the Office has regular internal reporting channels, it is not principally an information-gatheriny, reporting or rnonitoring agency.

UNHCR is concerned not only with collecting information from different sources. however. but also with its reliability Its own standards, therefore, must reflect the practices of corroboration and multiple sourcing that are fast becoming standards in the field, although the general issue of criteria and authority of information would repay further debate in the near future.

Similarly. so far as UNHCR may also need to produce information for use in determining refugee status in individual cases, it must be clear that such information is not itself determinative of the existence or non-existence of a well-founded fear of persecution. Decisions in this regard can only be made on the basis of all the circumstances, including the testimony of the individual claimant

Finally, in developing its information strategy, UNHCR is conscious of the need to ensure that national and international standards for the protection of personal data are observed, and that individuals do not suffer loss of protection through prejudicial disclosure.

Tangible proof of the validity of the path taken by UNHCR in information lies in the UNHCR/Centre for Documentation on Refugees database now called REFWORLD. Started more than 10 years ago with the development of REFLIT, a refugee literature database, REFWORLD now comprises 15 databases containing country information and UN documentation in full text, as well over 20 000 bibliographic records, case law, instruments, legislation and an online thesaurus.

These databases are not an end in themselves, however They are a tool that allows rapid access to verifiable information in the public domain. structured according to standard formats and index terms drawn from the International Thesaurus for Refugee Terminology. They offer a full range of analysis, law and comment on refugee issues and situations. They are the product of both the work of UNHCR researchers through collaboration with UNHCR field offices, (which, thanks to the efforts of UNHCR's Information and Communications System, are increasingly able to communicate worldwide via the latest communications technology), as well as the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada; the US Immigration and Naturalization Service Refugee Information Centre; a group of field consultants known collectively as Write-Net. and a network of NGOs under the umbrella of IRENE (the International Refugee Electronic Network). Every day new sources are being added as country situations are monitored in close cooperation with UNHCR's regional Bureaux. IRENE and the NGO network, and through direct communications with UNHCR branch and field offices. Recently, the databases were shared with others during a six-month pilot project involving selected UNHCR field offices, intergovernmental organisations, governments and NGOs The participants have completed a questionnaire on their experiences with access, and this is now being analysed. We are repeatedly reminded that how to make the databases universally accessible is a major and pressing challenge.

There is as yet no coherent international mechanism for information collection, verification and exchange Some early warning and alert systems, such as that of the Food and Agriculture Organisation are already well-developed, while others are just beginning to develop in the less predictable and more political areas of migration, refugees, displaced persons, politics and human rights.

At present, UNHCR's initiative relates specifically to the needs of the Office, at headquarters and field level, in the light of its statutory obligations. In developing its information strategy, there fore, UNHCR is conscious of the need to avoid unnecessary duplication, ensure the integrity of the system of international protection, enhance programme design and implementation. and resolve responsibility issues between states and international organisations. It must also provide the essential basis for action in the United Nations, the UNHCR Executive Committee and other bodies involved in the development of coherent. multilateral responses to the protection of refugees and displaced persons and the prevention of refugee flows.

To view the multiple information needs of those who take decisions on how to address complex humanitarian emergencies as unimportant is rather like thinking earth tremors are unrelated to earthquakes. What we have learnt is that we must plan for tomorrow. Investing today in an accurate and current information system for the purpose both of preventing the necessity for flight and of preparing for emergent crises of displacement is truly an investment in the future.