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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 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.