Cover Image
close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder1. Aim and Principles of Response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDefinition and Aim
View the documentResponsibilities
View the documentPrinciples of Response


Governments and UNHCR

6. Host governments are responsible for the security and safety of, assistance to, and law and order among refugees on their territory. Governments often rely on the international community to help share the burden, and UNHCR provides assistance to refugees at the request of governments.

The statutory function of providing international protection to refugees and seeking permanent solutions for their problems is however, always UNHCR's responsibility.

7. The role of UNHCR in emergency operations is primarily to protect refugees. UNHCR assists and complements the work of the government by acting as a channel for assistance from the international community, and by coordinating implementation of the assistance. Whatever the organizational manner in which UNHCR provides emergency assistance in response to a government request, UNHCR is responsible for ensuring that the protection and immediate material needs of the refugees are met in an effective and appropriate manner.

UN Organizations

8. The material needs of refugees are likely to cover sectors for which other organizations in the UN system have special competence. In particular, the World Food Program (WFP), with which UNHCR has established a close partnership, provides the major part of the emergency food needs of refugees. In recognition of each organization's comparative advantages and skills, and with the aim of giving consistency and predictability to the relationships between them, UNHCR has concluded Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with a number of UN organizations. These MOUs also cover issues related to emergency preparedness and response, such as joint contingency planning, joint assessments and development of standards and guidelines, as well as programme implementation. Notable among these are the MOUs with WFP, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which are contained in Appendix 3. UNHCR has also signed MOUs with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

9. Responsibility for coordinating the response of the UN system to a refugee emergency normally rests with UNHCR.

10. The UN body charged with strengthening the coordination of humanitarian assistance of the UN to complex emergencies is the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)2, through coordination, policy development and advocacy. Complex emergencies are defined and discussed in more detail in chapter 7 on coordination.

Non-Governmental Organizations

11. Large numbers of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide assistance to refugees in emergencies. These organizations often act as UNHCR's operational partners. The division of responsibilities is determined by the implementing arrangements agreed between them, the government and UNHCR regardless of whether funding is from UNHCR or elsewhere. This is discussed in more detail in chapters 7 and 8 on coordination and implementing arrangements.

Other Organizations

12. A number of other organizations also act as operational partners in the provision of assistance to refugees in emergencies. In particular, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS) with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, have long provided such assistance. The ICRC mandate requires a high degree of operational neutrality and independence, which sometimes limits their participation in coordination mechanisms and the exchange of information between them and other organizations.

13. Other operational partners could include inter-governmental organizations, for example the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The objective of IOM is to ensure the orderly migration of persons who are in need of international migration assistance. IOM works subject to the agreement of both (or all) the states concerned with the migration. IOM has worked closely with UNHCR, notably by assisting with voluntary repatriation.

2 This was formerly known as the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA).

The Refugees

14. Beyond the right to international protection under the Statute of UNHCR and under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, all refugees, as indeed all persons, have certain basic human rights. These are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the fundamental right to life, liberty and security of person; protection of the law; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to own property. Refugees have the right to freedom of movement. However, it is recognized that, particularly in cases of mass influx, security considerations and the rights of the local population may dictate restrictions.

15. Refugees and displaced persons also have, of course, responsibilities towards the country where they have sought refuge. These are set out in Article 2 of the 1951 Convention: "Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order." The civilian nature of refugee status must be respected.

Defining Responsibilities

16. All those involved, both inside and outside the UN system, should have clearly defined responsibilities within a single overall operation. This can be achieved through the establishment of an appropriate coordinating structure at various levels to ensure that duplication of effort and gaps are avoided. In certain situations, the coordinating role of UNHCR may need to be more direct and operational, both in planning and executing the emergency response, and in providing expertise in specific sectors.