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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder2. Protection
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentProtection in Emergencies
View the documentInitial Actions
View the documentPhysical Safety of Refugees
View the documentEmergencies as a Result of Changes in Government Policy
View the documentOther Persons of Concern to UNHCR
View the documentDurable Solutions
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes

Physical Safety of Refugees


60. Even after they have been admitted to a country of refuge, refugees may still face serious threats to their safety. In emergencies, some basic human rights are particularly threatened and will need to be specially protected by law as well as by action. These threats may originate from the country of origin or of asylum or from groups among the refugees themselves.

Camp Security

61. Threats of military attacks originating from the country of origin may be reduced by locating or relocating camps or settlements a reasonable distance from the border (see chapter 14 on site planning). In addition the authorities of the country of asylum may have to increase their military presence in the border area and around refugee settlements. However, military presence inside refugee camps or settlements should be avoided.

62. In the country of refuge, threats to physical safety of refugees (refoulement, unlawful detention, sexual violence, etc.) may emanate from officials dealing with the refugees.

The authorities of the country of asylum must be made aware of the fact that they retain primary responsibility for security and must ensure the safety and well-being of refugees.

63. Corrective action is in the hands of the authorities and must be taken resolutely. UNHCR must maintain contact with the refugees and the authorities to ensure that there is adequate response.

64. Criminal attacks and banditry against refugees should be addressed by civil authorities and security forces of the host country in close cooperation with UNHCR and the refugee community.

65. In situations where armed individuals are part of the refugee population, UNHCR should encourage the screening of the whole population and the separation of refugees from armed individuals, as well as their disarmament.

66. In all cases of military and police presence, general measures as described in paragraph 48 such as awareness campaigns and training for protection of the rights of refugee women and children are important in order to prevent sexual violence against them.

67. In cases of internal conflicts among the refugee population UNHCR should initially encourage a mediation by the refugee community. If this fails, UNHCR should request the authorities of the host country to resolve the conflict.

Reducing Tension Between the Refugee and the Local Community

68. In situations which may give rise to tension and conflict between the refugee community and the local population, the following measures may be considered in addition to action to address the specific causes of the problem:

i. Arranging regular meetings between the representatives of the refugees and the leaders of the local community;

ii. Sensitizing the local population to the plight of the refugees through local media (programmes on radio and TV, articles in newspapers) and community leaders;

iii. Sensitizing refugees to local customs and traditions;

iv. Ensuring that sufficient assistance is mobilized so that the presence of refugees does not impact negatively on scarce local resources;

v. Benefiting the local community through improvements in infrastructure in the areas of water, health, roads, etc.

69. As a measure of protection, UNHCR staff should encourage and support the organization of the refugee community and ensure its involvement alongside local authorities and communities, in all aspects of the administration of the refugee settlement. Women and adolescents should be included in such organizations, particularly those dealing with issues affecting their security. Other actions should include UNHCR presence in refugee camps and special training in international refugee standards and norms for all officials dealing with refugees.

Physical Safety in Areas of Conflict

70. International humanitarian law2 provides protection to civilians including refugees in situations of armed conflict. In non-international conflicts (i.e. internal armed conflict but not police operation), all parties to the conflict are bound by the 1949 Geneva Conventions to respect all persons not taking an active part in the hostilities, and in particular:

i. To treat them humanely and without distinction as to race, religion, sex, birth, wealth or any other similar criteria;

ii. To refrain from violence to life and person;

iii. Not to take hostages;

iv. To respect personal dignity;

v. Not to pass sentences or carry out executions without due process of law;

vi. To collect and care for the wounded and sick.

71. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the agency charged with supervising the implementation of international humanitarian law in situations of armed conflict. In most situations of armed conflict or civil strife, the ICRC offers its services to all parties to assist victims and ensure the protection of civilian populations - including, where applicable, refugees and other displaced populations - as well as detained combatants.

72. UNHCR staff should seek the cooperation of the ICRC, wherever it is present, and benefit from its expertise in dealing with state and non-state parties alike in situations of armed conflict.

2 The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocol of 1977 deal with protection of civilians in armed conflicts.

Operations in Areas Controlled by Non-state Entities

73. In situations of civil strife or internal armed conflict, particular difficulties may arise from the fact that UNHCR's interlocutors are not states or regular armed forces answerable to states, but insurgent groups and other non-state entities. UNHCR may have no choice but to deal with these groups as they exercise de facto control over a refugee population. It will be important to highlight the impartial, non-political and humanitarian role of UNHCR and to exercise public pressure in order to convince these groups of the importance of adhering to humanitarian and refugee law. However, when dealing with these groups, UNHCR should not imply, through any of its actions or correspondence, a formal recognition of these non-state entities by the United Nations.

Forced Recruitment

74. Another protection issue likely to arise where refugees find themselves in or near a conflict zone is that of forcible recruitment of refugees by one or more parties to the conflict. In confronting this issue, UNHCR staff must remember - and remind the authorities -that:

i. The civilian character of refugee camps and settlements must be preserved and respected in all circumstances. Therefore recruitment of any age group for military and paramilitary purposes is unacceptable;

ii. Recruitment by force may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which is prohibited in all circumstances;

iii. Recruitment and direct participation in hostilities of minors under 15 years of age is prohibited, and UNHCR advocates the non-involvement of all children under 18, whether they are required to participate directly in hostilities or to perform support tasks;

iv. Where refugees are forced or coerced to return to their country of origin to fight, this is tantamount to refoulement, which is prohibited in all circumstances.


75. UNHCR is not competent to intervene on behalf of combatants. Combatants placed hors de combat (sick, wounded, shipwrecked and prisoners of war) are primarily protected by international humanitarian law, and fall under the competence of the ICRC.

76. An ex-combatant may qualify as a refugee if a well-founded fear of persecution can be established, and if there are no serious reasons for considering that the person should be excluded3.

77. Finally, note that simply because a person is carrying a weapon does not mean that he/she is a combatant - in some societies, carrying weapons e.g. knives, is traditional.

3 See Note on the Application of Exclusion clauses, IOM/83/ 96 FOM/93/96, UNHCR, 1996.