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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder3. Emergency Management
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe Key Emergency Management Functions
View the documentStages in Refugee Emergency Operations
View the documentKey References




1. There is no single blueprint for refugee emergency management; each refugee emergency is unique. However, experience shows that emergencies tend to evolve according to certain recognizable and documented patterns.

Good emergency management relies on knowledge of these patterns and of the effective measures to deal with them.

Emergency situations do not necessarily result in tragedy. The chance of this occurring will be greatly reduced if the emergency is well managed from the stage of preparedness onwards.

2. While emergency management shares many of the characteristics of good management in general, there are a number of distinguishing features:

i. The lives and well-being of people are at stake;

ii. Reaction time is short;

iii. Risk factors are high and consequences of mistakes or delays can be disastrous;

iv. There is great uncertainty;

v. Investment in contingency planning and other preparedness activities is crucial;

vi. Staff and managers may be under particularly high stress because of, for example, security problems and harsh living conditions;

vii. There is no single obvious right answer.

Organization of this Section

3. This section of the handbook (chapters 3 to 9) is structured to reflect the phases of emergency preparedness and response. Firstly, the preparedness activities of contingency planning and early warning are dealt with (chapter 4), followed by initial needs and resources assessment and immediate response (chapter 5). Operations planning, coordination and site level organization are dealt with in chapters 6 and 7. Next, implementing arrangements are discussed, including procedures for operations implementation and control (chapter 8). Finally, chapter 9 on external relations covers relations with the host government (including establishing a formal presence in the country of operations), relations with the donor and diplomatic community and handling media interest. Note that certain activities cut across the phases of emergency preparedness and response. This is particularly the case with external relations, coordination, and planning.

4. Figure 1 shows some of the considerations discussed in this section in diagrammatic form, in particular in relation to emergency response. The response activities of problems and needs assessments, operations planning, implementing arrangements and programme formulation are all very closely related. Some aspects treated separately may be indivisible in practice, and there is no single correct order or way in which an emergency operation should be formulated (but it must conform to established UNHCR procedures governing project submission and control).

Figure 1 - Considerations in Emergency Management

Capacity and Resources

5. Emergency management can be defined as:

the organization of capacities and resources to meet threats to the lives and well-being of refugees.

6. Preparing for and responding to refugee emergencies are tasks which require the availability of the right resources at the right time as well as the capacity to use these resources effectively.

7. Capacity is the internal organizational capability which includes planning, staffing, structure, systems, procedures, guidelines, information flow, communication, decision-making and administrative support. Resources are the financial and human resources, relief materials, support equipment, tools and facilities.

8. If capacity is weak, then the emergency response is likely to be weak, even if resources are adequate.

Strong capacity can sometimes alleviate resource shortfalls by making more effective use of limited resources.

9. Capacity is an aspect of emergency management which is sometimes not given adequate priority. Resources are often given more emphasis during both the planning and operational stages since they are a more tangible element. But it is capacity that determines the quality of an emergency response. A well-capacitated organization is more likely to be able to mount a credible and effective operation, attracting the necessary resources.


Effective emergency management requires that the development and use of capacity be accorded correct priority throughout the different phases of an operation.

While much of the required capacity must be pre-existing, capacity can also be developed during an operation.

The Key Emergency Management Functions


11. Certain management functions are essential throughout a refugee emergency. These are:



Organizing and coordinating;


12. These will be required of UNHCR as an organization and also from individuals, at all levels, within UNHCR.

If these functions are not being performed : then it is likely that there will be serious deficiencies in the management of the emergency operation.

They always remain the responsibility of the person in overall charge of the operation, though they may be delegated to other staff.


13. This can be defined as:

the process of creating and communicating a vision for the emergency operation, and providing a clear strategic direction for actions even in situations of great uncertainty and risk.

14. Successful management requires leadership; subject to the role of the government, leadership may be the most important single contribution of UNHCR to the emergency situation. Leadership requires that once decisions are reached, they are properly implemented. This discipline is essential in emergencies when there is often no time to explain the considerations involved. As far as possible, those directly concerned should contribute to decisions that affect them, but final responsibility rests with the UNHCR officer in charge.


15. This can be defined as:

setting in place the process of assessing the situation, defining immediate objectives and longer term goals and the activities to accomplish them.

16. Planning is vital both before and during an emergency, and operations planning must be based on detailed needs and resources assessments.

Organizing and Coordinating

17. This can be defined as:

establishing systems and mechanisms to achieve a given objective, and coordinating people and organizations so that they work together, in a logical way, towards the common objective.

18. It involves selecting, training and supervising staff, assigning and clarifying roles and responsibilities of all those involved, and structuring communication and information flow. In an emergency, coordinating is a crucial aspect of organizing.

Delegation of Authority and Responsibility

19. Emergency management should be organized so that responsibility and authority are delegated to the lowest appropriate level, and should be exercised as close to the operation or beneficiaries as is practical. Clear and unambiguous lines of authority and reporting should be established and communicated to all staff.

20. The management structure should be organized so that accountability for actions, including management decisions, is clear. Those who make a decision should be those with the appropriate level of knowledge to enable them to make that decision and should be responsible for ensuring its implementation and follow up (including monitoring). The involvement of unnecessary layers of management, and unnecessary numbers of people, in decisions as well as in responsibility for implementation, confuses and diffuses accountability. Ambiguity and lack of simplicity in the definition of responsibilities also slows action.


21. This can be defined as:

monitoring and evaluating performance in comparison with plans and initiating changes where necessary.

22. Note that the key management functions are important not only during emergency response, but also in the preparedness phase, although their relative importance in each phase may vary. Organization and coordination mechanisms, for example, should be developed during contingency planning.

Stages in Refugee Emergency Operations

23. The table below depicts one model of activities as they may occur in refugee emergencies. It is important to understand that the stages and activities of a refugee emergency operation could overlap, or occur simultaneously.

24. A final phase of an emergency operation is the transition from emergency response to longer-term support (care and maintenance) and durable solutions (voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement). The time spent providing emergency relief should be kept to a minimum, and planning and implementation should always take account of the longer term. The importance of the balance between short term and long term is seen in a number of the vital sectors.


Typical Activities


· Prevention;


· Early warning;

· Contingency planning;

· Development of emergency response systems;

· Generation of support among potential host and donor governments;

· Provision of stand-by resources;

· Pre-positioning of supplies;


Emergency response

· Problem, needs and resources assessments;

· Resource mobilization;

· Handling donor relations and media interest;

· Operations planning;

· Implementation and coordination;

· Monitoring and evaluation;

· Transition to the post emergency operation.

25. Assisting governments in seeking durable solutions for the problem of refugees is a mandated function of UNHCR. Durable solutions must always be kept in mind, starting at the contingency planning stage. It is in this period that choices are made concerning how, how much, and for how long, aid will be delivered. These choices often have repercussions on the prospects for durable solutions that last long after the emergency has ended.

Emergency Preparedness

26. The best way to ensure an effective emergency response is by being prepared. Emergency preparedness can be defined as:

planning and taking act/on to ensure that the necessary resources will be available, in time, to meet the foreseen emergency needs and that the capacity to use the resources will be in place.

27. The scope of emergency preparedness is broad and the activities at that stage can be undertaken at the global, regional and country levels.

The preparedness measures should enable an organization to respond rapidly and effectively to an emergency.

28. At the global level, UNHCR maintains centrally a range of stand-by emergency response resources. These resources have been developed on the basis of past experience in emergencies. They include staff support, human and financial resources, operational support items and services, and a centrally managed emergency stockpile. The resources are available for deployment at short notice to any area where the need arises. They ensure a minimum and predictable level of global preparedness for emergencies. Moreover, there are also training activities available which can be used for capacity building.

29. For details of these resources, see the Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources, Appendix 1.

30. Contingency planning reduces the lead time necessary to mount an effective response and is a crucial tool to enhance the capacity to respond.

At the country and regional levels, early warning and contingency planning are the key preparedness measures;

31. The contingency planning process (see chapter 4) will allow the identification, in advance, of gaps in resources. A realistic plan may encourage donors and others to provide the missing resources.

32. Contingency planning helps predict the characteristics of the impending emergency - it increases the institutional analytical capacity which can be drawn upon should an emergency occur. It also helps identify the additional preparedness activities which may be required. These may include development or restructuring of the UNHCR organization in the country, emergency staffing, stockpiling, pre-positioning supplies and training. Priority should be given to activities requiring longer lead times.

Emergency Indicators

33. An emergency may start with a sudden large influx of refugees, with several thousand persons crossing a border, causing a highly visible life threatening situation. More often however, the onset of an emergency is not so dramatic or obvious, and a situation requiring an extraordinary response and exceptional measures may develop over a period of time. It is therefore essential to be able to recognize if a situation exists (or is imminent) which requires an emergency response, and what are the likely key characteristics (see table 1).

34. The following indicators are measurable and are therefore commonly used as thresholds above (or below) which an emergency situation clearly exists, or to signal whether a situation is under control and whether there is a need for urgent remedial action. The most important of these indicators is the mortality (or death) rate (see chapter 14 on health for information on how to calculate the mortality rate. More details of the other indicators are given in the respective chapters and in Appendix 2 Toolbox).

Table 1 - Emergency Indicators


Emergency Levels


> 2 per 10,000 per day


> 10% with less than 80%

Status of children

weight for height


< 2,100 calories/person/day

Water Quantity

< 10 litres per person per day

Water Quality

> 25% of people with diarrhoea

Site Space

< 30 sq. meters per person (this figure does not include any garden space)

Shelter space

< 3,5 sq. meters per person

35. Other indicators may not be so easily quantifiable but may be just as critical, for example, the presence of a physical threat to the refugees or to the standards of human rights which they enjoy. In particular, threats of refoulement should be considered as an indicator of a need for an emergency response.

Emergency Response

36. Emergency response can be defined as:

immediate and appropriate action to save lives, ensure protection, and restore the well-being of refugees.

37. Once safe asylum is assured, the priority of emergency management will be life saving activities. Timely and rapid problem, needs and resources assessments will help confirm or identify areas where gaps still exist from the contingency planning stage, both in terms of expertise and resources required.

38. Identification of problems requiring-specialist expertise is essential. Most refugee emergencies will require, in addition to protection specialists, one or more technical experts to coordinate the crucial technical sectors, such as health, food, nutrition, sanitation, water, shelter and infrastructure.

Key References

A Framework for People-Oriented Planning in Refugee Situations Taking Account of Women, Men and Children, UNHCR, Geneva, 1992.

Contingency Planning - A Practical Guide for Field Staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1996.

Coordination Among International Organizations in Complex Emergencies, Disaster Management Training Programme, UN, 1997.

Initial Assessment in Emergency Situations - A Practical Guide for Field Staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1998.

Supplies and Food Aid Field Handbook, UNHCR Geneva, 1989.

UNHCR Handbook; People-Oriented Planning at Work: Using POP to Improve UNHCR Programming, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994.

UNHCR Manual, Chapter 4, UNHCR, Geneva, 1995 (and updates).

Partnership: A Programme Management Handbook for UNHCR's Partners, UNHCR, Geneva, 1996.