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



Definition and Aim

1. The majority of UNHCR's operations begin as a result of an emergency caused by a sudden influx of refugees1. The organization and procedures of UNHCR reflect this; much of UNHCR's normal work is in effect an emergency response. There are, however, situations that are clearly exceptional. This handbook addresses the needs of such situations.

Definition of

2. The distinction is one of degree: a definition of a refugee emergency for the purposes of UNHCR and this handbook might be:

any situation in which the life or well-being of refugees will be threatened unless immediate and appropriate action is taken, and which demands an extraordinary response and exceptional measures.

3. What is important is less a definition than the ability to recognize in time the development of situations in which an extraordinary response will be required of UNHCR in order to safeguard the life and well-being of refugees.

4. Much of the handbook is concerned with guidelines on the protection and material assistance likely to be needed when large numbers of refugees cross frontiers to seek asylum i.e. an emergency caused by a sudden influx of refugees.

5. Such emergencies are, of course, not the only situations which demand an extraordinary response of UNHCR. Equally swift action will be required in other types of emergency. For example, an emergency can develop in an existing operation, such as when events suddenly place in danger refugees who had previously enjoyed asylum in safety (discussed in chapter 2 on protection). It can also erupt during the final phase of an operation as in the case of a large-scale repatriation (discussed in chapter 19 on voluntary repatriation). In addition there are complex emergencies, which are humanitarian crises involving the competence of more than one UN agency (see chapter 7 on coordination for a full definition). The general guidance provided in this handbook will be useful to these types of emergencies as well.


The aim of UNHCR's emergency response is to provide protection to persons of concern to UNHCR and ensure that the necessary assistance reaches them in time.

1 For convenience, "refugee" is used in this handbook to refer to all persons of concern to UNHCR. The different categories of persons of concern, including refugees, are defined in chapter 2 on protection.


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.

Principles of Response


17. Whatever the framework of responsibility for a particular refugee emergency, certain principles of response are likely to be valid. Many of these are common themes in the chapters that follow.

18. By definition, the needs of a refugee emergency must be given priority over other work of UNHCR. This is essential if the aim of ensuring protection and timely assistance to refugees is to be met. Leadership and flexibility are required of UNHCR in an emergency.

Get the Right People to the Right Place at the Right Time

19. The single most important factor in determining whether or not sufficient emergency assistance reaches the refugees in time will probably be the people involved in organizing and implementing the operation.

Enough UNHCR and implementing partner staff of the right calibre and experience must be deployed to the right places, and equipped with the authority, funds, material and logistical support needed.

No amount of expertise and experience can substitute for organizing ability, flexibility, a readiness to improvise, ability to get on with others, ability to work under pressure no matter how difficult the conditions, tact, sensitivity to other cultures and particularly to the plight of refugees, a readiness to listen, and, not least, a sense of humour.

Ensure the Measures are Appropriate

Identify Needs

20. An appropriate response in the provision of protection and material assistance requires an assessment of the needs of refugees that takes into account not only their material state and the resources available, but also their culture, age, gender and background and the culture and background of the nationals in whose country they are granted asylum. The provision of protection and of essential goods and services must be provided to refugees in ways which actually meet their needs.

Be Flexible and Respond to Changing Needs

21. What is appropriate will vary with time. In the early stages of a major emergency special measures that rely heavily on outside assistance may be necessary. However, as a general principle, the response should draw to the extent possible on local resources, materials and methods, and should, for example, avoid regimented refugee camps. Solutions that can be readily implemented with existing resources and simple technologies should be sought.

Identify Standards

22. It is an important responsibility of UNHCR to determine with the government and operational partners the standards of assistance that are appropriate. This requires expertise in a number of disciplines. The guidelines in Section III of this handbook suggest general considerations, to be modified in light of the circumstances of each emergency. Appendix 2 (Toolbox) also contains standards. What is to be decided for each sector is the correct level of total assistance from all sources.

23. As a general principle, the standards of assistance must reflect the special needs of the refugees based on their condition, physical situation and experiences. At the same time account must be taken of the standards planned for and actually enjoyed by the local population.

24. If the standards have been correctly determined, they cannot later be lowered without harm to the refugees. The refugees must, for example, receive a minimum basic food ration. Outside contributions required to reach the standards will, however, naturally be reduced as the refugees become more self-reliant.

Always Remember the Longer Term Objectives

25. A final general principle in considering the appropriateness of measures is that, from the start, resources must be divided between immediate needs and action aimed at longer-term improvements and the prevention of problems. For example, resources must be devoted to general public health measures as well as to the treatment of individual diseases, which will include many that could be prevented by better water and sanitation. Emergency assistance is to be allocated to the maximum extent possible to activities which will be of lasting benefit, thus keeping any relief phase as short as possible.

26. From the beginning of an emergency, and even during preparations for an emergency, planning must take into account the post emergency phase as well as the envisaged durable solutions.

Involve the Refugees and Promote Self-reliance

27. In order to ensure that the assistance provided to refugees is appropriate, the refugees must be involved from the outset in the measures taken to meet their needs. In addition, all components of the operation must be planned in such a way as to promote their self-reliance. Obvious as this principle is, the pressures of an emergency often make it easier to organize an operation from the outside for, rather than with, those whom it is to benefit.

28. If the emergency operation involves the refugees in this way from the start, its effectiveness will be greatly enhanced. Furthermore, such an approach will allow the refugees to maintain their sense of dignity and purpose, encourage self-reliance and help avoid dependency. In emergencies, refugees are often regarded as helpless and passive recipients of external assistance. In the long term this sets a pattern of dependency. Refugees must be encouraged to help themselves by using their own skills and resources from the beginning of an emergency.

It is important to encourage refugee participation at all stages of planning and implementation.

29. Refugees are often most able to help themselves, and thus be least reliant on outside assistance, if they are not grouped together in highly organized camps, but rather reside in small, less formal groups.

30. The interests and needs of specific groups of refugees, particularly vulnerable ones, are better cared for and such efforts are more sustainable if community support and involvement is harnessed right from the start. In addition, refugee involvement helps ensure that the emergency response addresses social, human and emotional needs, and goes beyond the provision of material relief.

Be Aware of Social and Economic Roles

To plan and manage an emergency response effectively, the social and economic roles of refugee women, men and children must be properly analyzed and understood to see how these roles will affect and be affected by, planned activities3.

31. It is essential to understand socio-economic factors when planning and implementing the emergency response to avoid unintentionally depriving some refugees of the benefits of assistance. This is often true for women, children, the elderly and the disabled. UNHCR pays particular attention to the needs of these groups, especially in emergencies. It is important that the basic needs of vulnerable groups (physically, mentally, or socially disadvantaged) are met. Thus in the ning and implementation of an emergency response, vulnerable groups must be identified and monitored systematically to ensure that they are not further disadvantaged. If necessary, special measures should be taken to meet their particular needs.

32. Even in an emergency, refugees are likely to have some form of representation, through a community or group organization.

It is important to find out exactly what kind of leadership structure exists.

It is also through an effective use of their representation that refugees' rights can be better promoted. However, be aware that leaders may sometimes not be representational, or may have an agenda or objectives which could have adverse consequences on other refugees.

3 In UNHCR this method for assessment and planning is known as "People Oriented Planning", and discussed in detail in A Framework for People-Oriented Planning in Refugee Situations Taking Account of Women, Men and Children, UNHCR, Geneva 1992

Do Not Treat Issues in Isolation

33. In all stages of an emergency, the problems and needs of refugees must be seen comprehensively, and sector-specific tasks be set within a multi-sectoral framework, since action in one area is likely to affect others. For example the real solution to a health problem might be found in improving the water supply. Ensure the correct balance in resource allocation between the different sectors.

A multi-sectoral approach must be a fundamental feature of an emergency response.

Ensure Environment is Considered at an Early Stage

34. Similarly, issues which are cross-cutting in nature should not be neglected. This is often the case with issues concerning vulnerable groups, children, women, and the environment. Environment concerns must be taken into account from the earliest stage. In an emergency involving large-scale population displacements, some environmental damage is unavoidable. Such damage can have an adverse effect on the health and well-being of the refugees and their host community. The emergency phase is therefore, a critical time to institute measures which limit environmental degradation. Environmental problems created at this stage become increasingly difficult and costly to redress. Every effort should be made to prevent, or at least minimize, irreversible environmental impacts caused by the emergency response activities and the presence of refugees.

Work for Durable Solutions

35. When an emergency occurs, actions taken at the very outset can have important longer-term consequences. Clear and consistent policies from the beginning will have an important long-term effect. Similarly, the immediate response of the international community to a major influx of refugees must take into account the ultimate aim of promoting a durable solution to the problem. This requires that the response both encourages the self-reliance of the refugees and reduces prolonged dependency on outside relief, and that it does nothing to prevent the promotion of a long-term solution as soon as possible.

36. As a general principle, the best solution is voluntary repatriation. Where this is not possible, assimilation within the country of asylum (local settlement) is in most circumstances preferable to assimilation within another country (resettlement), particularly for large groups and in cases where resettlement would take place in a cultural environment alien to the refugees. There may, however, be situations in which resettlement is the only way to ensure protection.

Monitor and Evaluate the Effectiveness of Response

37. Whatever the nature of the emergency, the action required of UNHCR is likely to vary with time and as circumstances change.

It is essential that the effectiveness of the response be kept constantly under review and action adjusted as necessary and in time.

This will require sound monitoring, reporting and evaluation systems, including indicators, to detect deterioration or change, and also a continuous review of the aims of UNHCR's assistance, both in terms of bringing the emergency to an early end and for the promotion of a durable solution.

38. Such monitoring must also ensure that the funds provided voluntarily to UNHCR by governments and others are being used to the best advantage. This is inherent in the principle of appropriate response. It should be borne in mind that whatever funds may be available in the early stages of an acute humanitarian emergency, the passage of time will produce financial constraints. Thus it is important that actual and potential donors see that the action proposed is indeed essential, and that its impact is effective.

Finally, an emergency response must address fully the specific needs of children, be gender sensitive and cognizant of the impact of its policies and practices on the environment.