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close this bookMedical Assistance to Self-settled Refugees (Tropical Institute Antwerp, 1998)
close this folder4. Food aid
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentA rational basis for deciding on food aid?
View the documentRefugee registration
Open this folder and view contentsAssessing the nutritional situation
Open this folder and view contentsDelivering food aid
Open this folder and view contentsOf evidence and pressure

Refugee registration

Although this has been challenged21 refugees are commonly counted registered, both for identification and protection, and for material assistance. For humanitarian agencies, counting the refugees and establishing the 'refugee caseload' is central in planning and fundraising, and for their accountability.34 UNHCR has a mandate to protect and assist refugees, and systematically distinguishes between refugees and hosts. Also in Guinea, registration and ration cards were central to the refugee system. However, the fact that most refugees self-settled among the host population, spread over a large area and were very mobile, both within and across state borders, complicated registration considerably. The registration process evolved over time (Figure 18).

LOCAL COUNCILS. In early 1990, local councils counted the number of refugees arriving in their administrative territory. During the first months, there was probably no deliberate exaggeration of actual refugee numbers, only a lot of confusion. When refugees passed through one village and settled in the next, they were often registered twice. When the local councils forwarded new data, it was often unclear whether this concerned new arrivals or updated totals, whether it was the total number of refugees, or the number of households. Later, when UNHCR announced that quantity of food aid would depend on the number of refugees, numbers were inflated, sometimes openly increased during meetings. At that time, the UNHCR official leading the assessment mission tolerated, if not encouraged this. Early 1990, the refugee-influx in Guinea was occurring without media attention and without interest of the international community. UNHCR had to find arguments to make a case for the Guinean refugee crisis. In the absence of any dramatic emergency, only numbers could convince.

Figure 18: Refugee registration: official data vs. guesstimates, 1990-95

RED CROSS. In April-May 1990, UNHCR needed a more reliable refugee registration for distribution of food aid, and asked the Red Cross to register refugees, and deliver ration cards. In the Red Cross registration system, refugees had to constitute groups of 50, which were then registered as a group. Each head of household within the group of 50 received one ration card. These ration cards - commonly called rice tickets - served mainly to verify the authenticity of refugees' identity during food distributions, and to obtain free medical care.

PROJET DE RECENSEMENT. In 1991, UNHCR and the Ministry of Planning established the Projet de Recensement to improve refugee registration. Despite the recognition of structural problems in the Red Cross system, the Projet de Recensement largely adopted the Red Cross data and continued to implement their registration system with little modification.

FALSE POSITIVES. Since the start of food distribution, refugee registration had entitled all refugees to food rations, without any assessment of need.

Part of the problem with registration was that there was only one system, combining identification, registration and entitlement to benefits in one process and on one card. As registration was mainly a means to get access to food aid, there were incentives to register multiple times. This has also been observed elsewhere.17,34 In 1991, a report highlighted major problems with the registration system. There were duplicate registration numbers, altered cards, cards with no names and forged cards.35* Heads of families registered multiple times, married women registered as heads of households and English-speaking Guineans registered as refugees. The registration teams were also under pressure from local influential Guineans to register Guinean families. Refugees deciding to return to their country, often left their ration card with their hosts or fellow refugees, or sold it. At certain moments, there was a real market in ration cards. Such individual abuses were, however, insignificant compared with the massive fraud committed by merchants and government officials. Some owned dozens of ration cards for 50 beneficiaries each. It was rumoured that they were registered for FG5,000 (US$5) per card.36

[* UNHCR found many cards with identical lists, figuring the 50 same names, others were composed of fictive names (e.g. 50 jazz musicians).]

FALSE NEGATIVES. Despite these false positives some bona fide refugees were not registered. In 1995, one NGO conducted a house-to-house survey and found that about 15 per cent of the total refugee population was unregistered and did not receive food assistance.37 Some refugees claimed that officials had removed them from assistance lists without explanation or had refused to register them, unless they paid a bribe.36 Officials asserted that such claims were a method refugees used to register multiple times. Registration of new arrivals was also problematic. To reduce the possibility for families to register multiple times, refugee registration was often stopped and periodically resumed to register large influxes of new refugees. Small groups of new arrivals could not get registered. Later, UNHCR even decided not to register new arrivals unless they agreed to relocate in refugee camps (Box 1).

RE-REGISTRATIONS. From late 1993 on, UNHCR decided to proceed to re-registrations. Registration officers went on very short notice to refugee settlements, called all heads of households and verified registration. After each re-registration, however, there were many complaints from genuine refugees that they had been barred on arbitrary criteria. Most notably, refugees registered in certain settlements, but not physically present during re-registration, were barred from the lists. The result of these re-registrations was a decrease in the overall number of beneficiaries, mainly in the cities. However, many false refugees continued to have ration cards, as they bribed the registration officers to remain registered.

[ This verification was done in different ways. Sometimes the head of household was requested to name all dependants, and this was checked-off against the initial registration data. At other occasions, the groups of 50 beneficiaries had to be present physically.]

OFFICIAL REFUGEE DATA VS. GUESSTIMATES. The official refugee data suffered from these shortcomings in refugee registration. During 1991 official numbers of refugees in N'Zkority increased considerably, although no new refugees had arrived. Between 1992 and 1995, the official number of refugees remained stable around 570,000 - 580,000 (Figure 18), although 150,000 new refugees arrived during this period, and there were only few official repatriations. During 1996, considerable numbers of refugees returned to Liberia. Official refugee data did not adequately reflect this either. Figure 18 compares official refugee data with guesstimates, based on observed refugee influxes and discrepancies between registration data and survey data. During 1991-93, it was estimated that up to one-third of all registrations were false, in the cities this was close to 50%.

FOOD FRAUD. The false registrations resulted in massive misappropriation of food aid by Guinean merchants.* This food was sold on the markets and depreciated the rice price. Misappropriation of food aid discredited PARLS in the eyes of donors, relief agencies, and even the refugees. This bad reputation was probably the main cause for the reductions in food aid imposed during 1994-95, which resulted in real famine in certain rural areas in 1995. By 1995, re-registration and a stricter registration system had corrected much of the false registrations, but by then PARLS had acquired its bad reputation. This bad reputation probably created the mind-set for UNHCR officials to impose new arrivals to settle in camps, so as to separate them from the old refugees.

[* Some Guineans also used refugee rations cards to obtain free medical care in health centres and hospitals, where they had to pay. However, reports on such abuses remained anecdotal. Health care can indeed only be consumed by one individual at a time. Moreover, in the process one gets registered and is observed by health workers and other patients, who are not part of the refugee system, and often disapprove abuses. Anyhow, no actor in the refugee system ever considered that misuse of ration cards to obtain free medical care constituted a serious problem.]