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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.

Defending humanitarianism at the end of the 20th century

by Peter Walker

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is an alliance of some 163 Notional Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which was set up some 75 years ago. Together the Societies spend some 23 billion Swiss francs (ECU 14.4 billion) a year on programmes to assist the most vulnerable in their own countries. In 1994 they spent some SFR 430 million (ECU 270 million) on international humanitarian responses to those crises which overwhelmed the capacity of local organisations. Ten years ago, most of the Federation's operations used to close within a few months of starting up, but almost all the operations it mounted in 1994 will carry on into 1995, as will a great many started in 1993 Assistance is currently going to some 19.4 million people
worldwide in international relief operations; 6.6 million of these are refugees or displaced persons. The number of emergencies requiring an international response has risen at an alarming rate through the 1990s, essentially for three reasons.

The types of disasters happening today have changed. and the Federation is having to respond to more mass movements of desperate people than it ever did before Vast movements such as that of Rwandans into Goma, Zaire, are happening because of a range of pre-existing political, economic, ethnic and military factors that undermine individual security. Refugees and displaced people are obviously vulnerable and have experienced their own personal disasters or crises. Their pre-existing vulnerability may lead to their displacement and, once displaced, they become even more vulnerable.

The number of disasters has grown too, and they are affecting more people than ever before. Disaster now hits between 250 and 300 million people a year, excluding those caught up in war. Although annual figures vary widely, the general trend is upward at a rate of around 10 million a year.

A greater proportion of people are unable to recover from disaster unaided Population increase and urban expansion account for some of this rise. In addition, more people are vulnerable to disasters because they live in poverty, because they are forced to live in close proximity to hazards (on flood plains, on marginal land and in urban shanty towns) or because they are subjected to violence and intimidation, whether it is war, banditry, ethnic hostility or religious discrimination. Vulnerable people may remain in need of assistance for months or sometimes years.

Finally, an increasingly unbalanced equation complicates disasters. Available resources are not growing to meet the increasing needs of disaster victims, at either the national or the international level. The welfare safety net traditionally provided by government is being universally dismantled. Increasingly, the burden of looking after dispossessed and vulnerable people of our planet is being laid at the feet of the voluntary and private institutions and the UN.

The trend is well-illustrated by the growth in international humanitarian assistance (which excludes assistance for long-term development). There has been an alarming increase in relief spending in OECD countries, which provide the bulk of international disaster relief spending. This increase is even more alarming when compared with the figures for long-term development assistance. Total overseas development assistance (ODA) to developing countries remained stable between 1980 and 1990, at around $53 billion per year. When population increases are taken into account, one sees that assistance actually fell from $13.06 per capita to $12.71. This leaves the International Federation and other aid agencies with an increasing load to carry.

Growing complexity

Two tragedies in Africa-Liberia and Rwanda-show very little prospect of a return to normality, These relief operations cannot be expected to close down in a few weeks. Caring and well-resourced welfare states with clear, respected and defendable boundaries are increasingly a thing of the past. Power, from the barrel of the cheap but effective automatic rifle, in the hands of the dispossessed and hungry, is the most potent factor shaping people's lives today. If one looks for causal factors for this change, rapid population, growth and urbanisation stand out alongside environmental degradation and a shrinking of the natural resource base. Nationalism and ethnic conflict become a refuge into which frightened and disillusioned people retreat. These cultural differences will define the fault lines along which future conflict will occur.


Sub-Saharan - Africa Refugees by country of asylum

The Band-Aid approach to relief cannot work in such cases as Rwanda or Liberia, yet our present alternative response of open-ended basic welfare support thus moving from the Band Aid to the life support machine-is no solution either.

Clearly humanitarian agencies have to change rapidly. Rwanda will prove to be a turning point It has brought home to all involved the potential scale of the suffering in today's all-embracing disasters and the need to address root causes while, at the same time, running sustained. massive relief operations.

Nonetheless, we have to be careful to separate our analysis from our operation. Although most people now recognise that disasters are caused by a combination of natural, economic and often military factors, many aid agencies assume that disaster response must also be in three parts, combining humanitarian with military and economic intervention.

This is a fatal approach. Humanitarian assistance is able to operate in situations of violence because it is seen to be independent, impartial and neutral and provided with the consent of all parties. Whether we are engaging in search and rescue operations after earthquakes, airlifts to remote famine regions or shelter programmes to assist flood victims, the same principle holds true. Impartiality, neutrality and consent must be the guiding principles in aid delivery.

The need for standards

Liberia and Somalia have suffered devastating civil wars and refugee flows Other African nations share the tensions that Rwanda unleashed. From Angola to Bosnia to the Caucasus, vast swathes of people face poverty and conflict. The speed and complexity of these emergencies has thrown into sharp focus four dilemmas confronting all who would offer humanitarian assistance amid conflict and chaos. while their sheer scale has exposed many of the practical problems that beset agencies in any disaster.

Political action or humanitarian action?

Despite the end of the Cold War, the international community as yet seems unable to take resolute collective action in the face of what are in essence political crises over peace and security, justice and resources. Instead, humanitarian action- frequently funded by governments directly or via the UN-becomes an alternative to or substitute for efforts to seek and find political solutions How should agencies deal with this: get on with their job and keep quiet, protest and pull out until governments become active, or work on -perhaps refusing money from passive politicians-but press publicly for political action 7

Human rights or humanitarianism?

The carnage in Rwanda was perpetrated by Rwandans, many of whom live among the millions asking for assistance. Are these people refugees, or criminals who have forfeited their right to aid? Keeping someone alive ensures their most basic human right, but should humanitarian agencies do more than feed the hungry? If aid workers police human rights, will this hamper their ability to work with all those in need?

Beneficiaries or agencies?

Which comes first: food for the hungry or a television team to generate donations to pay for the food? In Rwanda and Somalia, competition for coverage is intense Have agencies lost sight of their first responsibility to help those in greatest need - in the battle for exposure, resources and donations, or is agency-versus-agency competition inevitable?

To what standards should relief be provided?

To what standards should food or medical assistance be provided? What standards are disaster victims entitled to expect? The standards of their home country, those of their country of asylum if they are refugees, or those of the country from which the relief team comes? These questions have never really been satisfactorily addressed, although recently the International Federation and seven of the world's major nongovernmental relief agencies created a common code of conduct for their relief workers, a code which has now been subscribed to by over 40 relief agencies.

If the last decade has brought exponential growth in relief work. increased complexity and a groping for common standards of assistance, what will the next bring? We believe that the need for humanitarian assistance will continue to grow, and that more disaster victims will be fleeing violence, becoming refugees or joining the swelling ranks of the internally displaced. Large-scale, long-term relief 'welfare' operations are here to stay. At the same time, the increased funding being put into relief is bound to be followed by an increase in the accountability required from relief agencies. If agencies do not start to set and agree on their own standards, then standards will be imposed on them by the donor community.

Ultimately, increased finance and standards of assistance cannot turn back the tide of growing humanitarian need. Relief aid for the most part addresses effects, not causes Today this is not enough, and tomorrow it will be seen as irresponsible. If relief agencies are to be true to their humanitarian beliefs, they may soon find themselves with little choice but to start advocating and acting for states, north and south, placing poverty reduction, household food security and the non violent resolution of conflict at the heart of their strategies.


Refugees in Africa by country of origin in %