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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

Initial Actions


28. The legal basis on which UNHCR intervenes to secure the protection of refugees is contained in the instruments mentioned above. Frequently the practical course of action to be adopted is, however, of more concern than the legal instruments themselves.

Often protection depends less on the fine print of a statute and more on swift appropriate action by UNHCR field staff.

29. In order for UNHCR to effectively discharge its protection mandate, the staff of the organization must have free and unhindered access to all refugees and asylum seekers irrespective of their location.

30. It should be borne in mind that action taken at the outset of an emergency may have significant long-term consequences, both for continued protection, including perhaps for other groups of refugees within the country, and for the promotion of durable solutions.

Rapid Deployment, Continuing Presence and Free Access

31. The first priority is rapid deployment of staff.

A continuing UNHCR presence with direct and unhindered access to refugees should be established in the area concerned for as long as required.

Free access and continuing presence are the vital practical support to ensuring UNHCR's mandate. Sufficient female staff must be present as this will help ensure that women refugees can express protection problems, and that these problems are recognized and dealt with appropriately.


32. Good protection requires good information. UNHCR staff, often together with local officials, should visit all points of influx and refugee locations to gather information from refugees regarding the issues and questions set out in Annex 1 to chapter 5 on initial assessment (in particular those relating to who the refugees are, where they are from, why they have fled and identification of vulnerable groups). In addition, the refugees should be asked about the situation along the flight route and any problems encountered upon entering the country of refuge.

33. Sources of information must be developed and direct communication with contacts established in the field to ensure that UNHCR is quickly informed of any new influx or protection problem. Such open lines of communication are especially important for border regions which are remote from the capital, where UNHCR may not yet have a local presence.

34. Potential sources of information include:

Asylum seekers themselves;

Local or central government authorities;

Community and religious leaders;

National and international NGOs;

ICRC, if present;

Other UN and international organizations;

National (particularly local language) and international news media.

35. If possible the central authorities should participate in fact finding missions, as this reduces the risk of misunderstanding between UNHCR and the central authorities and between the central and local authorities.

Ensuring Respect for Non-refoulement

36. The best way to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement and basic human rights is to create awareness among national authorities at all levels. In a crisis situation, it may not be possible to provide formal training, but in daily contacts with camp authorities, local authorities, army personnel and border officials, the principle of non-refoulement must be made clear. Give concrete examples to the authorities of what can happen to a refugee who is returned: it can mean loss of life. Awareness may also need to be raised in the local population -the media may provide a forum - and public opinion can be an important influence.

Ensuring an Understanding of UNHCR's Mandate

37. The basis for UNHCR's concern and involvement should be explained in as practical terms as possible. Local officials may not know of UNHCR's mandate, nor of the assistance which UNHCR may already be giving elsewhere in the country.

The approach Should stress that the work of the High Commissioner is of an entirely non-political character and is strictly humanitarian and social.

Border Presence

38. Develop good contact with border authorities and monitor cross border movements: this also helps provide contact with the refugees, and gives information about what is happening in the country of origin as well as potential problems in border crossings on both sides of the border. If it is not possible for staff to be present at all border crossing points on a permanent basis, each crossing point should be checked frequently.

39. Any protection problems relating to the admission or treatment of refugees at the border should be brought immediately to the attention of the competent authorities in the host country and any other country involved, for urgent remedial action.

Location of Refugees

40. Refugees should be accommodated sufficiently far away from the borders of the country of origin to avoid security problems.

Maintaining Contact with Local Authorities

41. At both the local and central level, there must be assured access at all times to those officials whose decisions will affect the refugees' situation. Establish who they are, contact them and if possible request home telephone numbers and other means of communication so that if a protection problem arises it can be brought to the right official's attention at once. Refoulements often take place very rapidly.

42. The most senior local official directly responsible should be approached and requested to allow (at least temporary) asylum. In some cases this may be the local military commander for a region.

43. NGOs may be able to advise on the local infrastructure and decision-making process, and influential local personalities, such as community or religious leaders, may be helpful.

44. Local authorities should be kept informed of demarches UNHCR has made or intends to make in the capital - these should not only be the demarches of a political or formal nature, but also those covering practical and assistance aspects of the programme.

Protection and Assistance

45. Protection and material assistance should be planned as complementary parts of a single UNHCR operation. Assistance cannot be provided without assured asylum and without life-sustaining material assistance, protection alone will not preserve the lives and well-being of the refugees. There should be an early indication that UNHCR's intervention may result in material assistance - in other words, that the granting of asylum and meeting of immediate needs will not be a burden on local authorities' budgets. Field Officers must receive early guidance contained in section III on the extent to which commitments on material assistance may be given, in order to communicate this information with local authorities. If the influx consists of additional asylum seekers clearly belonging to a group already assisted by UNHCR, a firm assurance of material assistance within the means available is usually given. Although the link between such assistance and protection responsibilities is self-evident to UNHCR, it should be borne in mind that the connection is not necessarily so clear to local or central authorities.


46. A registration exercise should be conducted at the earliest possible stage of an emergency operation (for more details see chapter 11 on population estimation and registration).

Women and Children

47. Refugees, and in particular women and children, travelling alone or in small groups in remote border areas, are very vulnerable to extortion, abuse and sexual violence. A proactive approach is needed to ensure that protection needs are met.

UNHCR considers a child to be:

a person below the age of 18 years, unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier,

as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Note that gender-related persecution can be considered a ground for recognition under the definition of refugee.

UNHCR's Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women, and Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care (see key references) are essential reading for those designing a protection programme. More information on the procedures noted below is contained in section III of the Handbook, in particular chapter 10 on community services.

48. Prevent protection problems for refugee women and children through good programme design in all sectors, including:

Obtaining a good knowledge of the population profile, especially the breakdown by sex and age;

Preserving the original family and community structures;

Consulting women on the design of the assistance programme, in particular on the design of the refugee camp and on the commodity distribution system;

Locating services so as not to expose refugee women to additional risk when using them;

Providing lighting in the camp especially along paths to latrines;

Ensuring an adequate number of women staff, particularly protection, community services and health staff;

Forming security patrols among the refugees themselves having the protection of women as a priority;

Providing training for police and military personnel on the rights of women and children, especially in circumstances where there is a heavy military or police presence;

Initiating tracing as soon as possible. Appropriate measures must be taken for identification, documentation, tracing, interim support and family reunion of separated children (see chapter 10 on community services for more information on unaccompanied children);

Providing structured activities and primary schools for children (this can be important as a protection tool as it can help reduce recruitment into armed forces);

Targeting assistance to remove the need for child labour;

Issuing birth certificates. Birth registration may be a prerequisite for obtaining nationality, enrolling in school and may be a vital tool for tracing. It can also be important in preventing military recruitment and other forms of exploitation.

Help Children by Helping the Family; Support Women to Preserve Family Unity.

The single best way to promote the protection, well-being and safety of children is to support their families.

Actively work to preserve family unity. Measures to promote the health and physical security of refugee women can help prevent separation of mother and child. A family, whose members have become separated or who are under serious stress, puts children at particular risk. Give priority to helping parents and other child care-givers meet the needs of their children. Also, recognize the parents' own needs. Families may need assistance in using their own coping techniques and rebuilding their support networks. Make every effort to preserve or reconstitute family help networks. Family groups wishing to live together should be helped to do so.

Monitoring and Reporting

49. Once immediate protection is secured, arrangements must be made to monitor the situation and ensure continuing respect of the rights of the refugees.

50. Immediate, clear and regular reports of developments, action taken and intended to be taken are important, whether from the Field Officer to the Head of Office or from the latter to Headquarters. Guidance must be requested as necessary and Headquarters level interventions recommended as appropriate. See Annex 3 to chapter 8 on implementing arrangements, for a standard situation report.

51. A prerequisite for intervention with a government, or for mobilization of international support, is accurate situation reporting.

Field staff at the site, anxious to provide immediate help, must remember that unless information gathered locally is shared, its usefulness is Iimited.

Formalizing Arrangements and Written Demarches

52. Any temporary or ad hoc agreements with the authorities should be formalized, as for example that covering the local UNHCR presence. Reference should be made to protection and durable solutions in any formal exchanges governing the provision of material assistance.

53. As a general rule, a written demarche should be made as soon as possible to the central authorities at the highest appropriate level. This level, and the form of the demarche, will be determined by the nature of UNHCR's presence in the country. A demarche by a newly arrived mission would normally be addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (or perhaps Interior; the advice of UNDP and/or embassies should be sought). The communication might:

i. Refer to the information available to UNHCR on the influx or problem (qualifying it as necessary: the government will often know more than UNHCR);

ii. State UNHCR's view that persons involved are or may (as applicable) be of concern to the High Commissioner;

iii. Refer to the government's protection responsibilities;

iv. Request (confirm understanding, express gratitude for, etc.) assurances that persons will be granted (at least temporary) asylum (if appropriate: pending determination of status and longer-term arrangements);

v. Offer, where persons are found to be of concern to UNHCR, commitment in principle to provide material assistance (for example, "every effort" formula).

54. The text of representative level demarches should be communicated to Headquarters at once both for information and in order that they may be shared with the permanent mission and/or referred to in any subsequent Headquarters level demarches. Likewise, the texts of the latter should of course be shared at once with the field.

55. Representatives should immediately recommend action at the Headquarters level if they are in doubt that their interventions alone will secure protection.

56. New oral and written demarches must be made if there are any grounds for concern that protection is still not adequately assured (refoulement, abduction, arbitrary detention, mistreatment, abuse of women and children etc.). Complementary action at the local level should both closely monitor developments affecting protection, and concentrate to the extent possible on assisting the authorities to meet the practical problems of the influx.

Public Relations

57. In certain circumstances tensions in relations between neighbouring countries may make it necessary to stress even at the local level that the granting of asylum is a purely humanitarian act.

Emphasize that the granting of asylum is purely humanitarian and therefore not a hostile ad, and that UNHCR's presence and involvement may help reduce tension.

58. Particular attention should be paid to briefing other UN organizations and the diplomatic community, especially those interested governments whose influence may be able to facilitate protection (for example, by an early indication of support for UNHCR and/or of intent to contribute financially to the UNHCR operation).

59. Visits by national and international media and the diplomatic corps may help achieve a broader appreciation of UNHCR's protection function. The position to be taken with regard to the media will depend very much on the circumstances and whether or not publicity would help protect persons of concern to UNHCR. Close coordination within the various levels of UNHCR is necessary. Where UNHCR is already represented, previously established good contacts with the locally based (and especially local language) media may prove a valuable source of information and is useful in advancing an understanding of UNHCR's role. General guidance regarding media relations is provided in chapter 9 external relations.