Priorities for UNHCR Today
by Luise DRUKE *
One of the most important organisations operating in the
humanitarian aid field is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees, a fundraising agency headed by Mrs Sadako Ogata of Japan. The European
Community and its Member States are the largest contributors to the UN's various
refugee relief programmes, run by UNHCR and UNRWA (the UN's Relief and Works
Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East); and in recent years, partly
at the request of the European Parliament and ACP governments, the Community has
substantially increased its assistance to refugees and displaced people. In this
article a principal administrator at the Brussels office responsible for
relations between UNHCR and the European Community institutions reviews the
Each year the demands on UNHCR are greater than the previous
year, as it attempts to respond to the escalating number of international crises
which continue to produce waves of new refugees and require the mobilisation of
major international relief efforts, with an annual operational budget which
exceeded US$1 billion last year. Whilst some regions of the world are
experiencing a political healing process that has enabled the commencement of
repatriation programmes such as those in Vietnam, Cambodia and Afghanistan, the
outbreak of persecution combined with natural disasters has resulted in the
appearance of new refugee populations elsewhere. The most conspicuous examples
in this latter case are the desperate situations in the former Yugoslavia and in
Somalia, which have produced around three million and one million refugees
respectively in a matter of months.
Given the differing characteristics of individual refugee
problems today, UNHCR has had to search for the most appropriate and effective
manner in which to apply its mandate to each situation it encounters and to
explore new strategies in order to ensure that persons in need of protection
receive it. The High Commissioner, during the 1991 meeting of the Executive
Committee, developed a three-pronged strategy to consist of:
- emergency preparedness and response;
- solutions through prevention.
This year, Mrs Ogata has submitted new concepts to the 1992
meeting of the Executive Committee, relating to:
- UNHCR's role in the country of origin for direct and indirect
prevention; - solutions involving voluntary repatriation and regionally
concerted arrangements, seeking out new directions in international cooperation
for the protection of refugees.
The Horn of Africa and the republics of the former Yugoslavia
are two of the regions absorbing much of UNHCR's attention, although southern
Africa is also a major concern with the one million refugees in Mozambique and
Malawi. Repatriation and reintegration programmes in Vietnam, Cambodia and
Afghanistan are requiring a huge effort to ensure the safe and dignified return
of millions of refugees previously forced out by persecution and civil war. In
Latin America the CIREFCA (the International Conference on Central American
Refugees) process is now under way as the restoration of peace to the region has
facilitated the return of many thousands of displaced persons.
Material assistance programmes of emergency relief, local
integration and repatriation, counselling and legal assistance continue to
figure prominently in UNHCR's list of priorities in providing adequate
protection to refugees, returnees and displaced persons around the world.
However' UNHCR cannot afford to ignore the other essential role it is called
upon to play in the field of international protection, which requires ensuring
the maintenance of standards as defined in the international legal instruments
relating to refugees.
Political and material support from the European Community,
individual governments and NGOs is essential to the successful work of UNHCR,
which is generally called upon to take the lead in coordinating international
humanitarian relief efforts, in consultation with the UN Secretary-General's
Department for Humanitarian Affairs in New York. Dependent on a limited subsidy
from the regular budget of the United Nations and voluntary contributions from
governments, NGOs and individuals, UNHCR's resources are barely sufficient to
deal with the most urgent of today's refugee crises and therefore special and
emergency operations require additional financing through appeals.
Cooperation with the European Community
The cooperation between UNHCR and the institutions of the
European Community in recent years is evolving into a new partnership. Not only
has the European Community been a strong advocate for human rights and
humanitarian relief in its overseas development policy, but in purely financial
terms the Community has increased its commitment to UNHCR from some $2 million a
year in the late 1970s to almost $121 million in 1991, whilst continuing to
support the work of the World Food Programme, UNRWA and the ICRC through the
allocation of substantial sums of money for food aid and emergency relief,
reaching a total of $1 billion since 1984 . The steady increase of EC
humanitarian aid has been greatly fostered by the European parliament and ACP
Governments which led, in the mid-1980s, to the introduction of a specific
budget line for refugees and displaced persons.
UNHCR is involved in current discussions with institutions and
Member States of the European Community in elaborating common asylum procedures
for persons claiming to be refugees, and promoting a wider knowledge and
understanding of internationally recognised principles for the treatment of
refugees in Europe. This includes, inter alia, the promotion of a new concept of
temporary protection to deal with the many individuals today temporarily
displaced from their home countries by civil war but who do not require
permanent refugee status. In the ACP countries, UNHCR is working with concerned
governments and organisations on short-and long-term strategies.
Countries in Africa, Central America and Asia, many of which are
ACP Member States - are in fact today the scenes of the major refugee problems.
These are the regions where some 95% of the world's 17 million-plus refugees and
an equal number of internally displaced persons are to be found. But it is also
these regions which have shown the way in coming to grips with their refugee
problems. The support of the European Community for the ACP countries and for
those involved in these efforts, including UNHCR, has been a crucial factor.
As Mrs Ogata has said, there is no doubt that the world is at a
crossroads. Will Europe, and in particular the European Community, help to
bridge the abyss which now separates North from South? Will it and the rest of
the industralised world have the courage to commit themselves politically and
economically to attacking the severe poverty, underdevelopment and social
injustice which lead to oppression, violence and displacement?
The path which we follow will create the kind of world we bestow
on future generations.