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close this bookRefugee Emergencies. A Community-Based Approach (UNHCR, 1996, 142 p.)
close this folderPart One. Emergency Response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe Role of Community Services
View the documentNeeds and Resources Assessment
View the documentPlanning Action
View the documentCommunity Building

Community Building


The skill of working with communities is very much a state of mind, a constant sense of enquiry, imagination, and an ability to continue learning -from even the most humble source or fleeting thought: an alertness to dreams and to the minute details of reality.

One of the most important actions that can be taken to help reduce the shock and stress for the community as a whole is to provide security and stability as quickly as possible. This can be done materially (by providing food, water, shelter, clothing, basic household items, preventive and curative health care), by ensuring protection, by keeping the refugees informed and by involving them from the beginning in the organization of all aspects of their new lives.

Community-based Approach: Experience suggests that even in an emergency many social welfare needs can best be met by resources that exist within the community. A social welfare programme should thus be designed to mobilize these resources through the establishment of community-based services.

Every community has its own mechanisms (regulated by the its beliefs, social values, customs, traditions and preferences) which determine how problems are solved. Thus a social welfare programme should also seek to enhance and improve the existing "coping mechanisms" which may include: family relationships, mutual assistance among neighbours, local social and economic organizations, community leaders, religious institutions/practices/leaders, traditional ceremonies and festivals, traditional healers.

Family Reunion: The family is the basic social unit in almost all societies. It plays a key role in meeting basic needs and solving me problems of individuals. Strengthening families will improve the ability of refugees to take care of themselves. Activities to facilitate family reunification therefore should be a priority.


The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) which has both experience and expertise in this area should be asked to advise on tracing. (See Tracing Form Parts A & B, annex no. 1).

The possibilities for ensuring communication between those separated/and for tracing and reunion, will vary greatly with each emergency. Individual tracing may take a long time and will only really be possible once the emergency is stabilized and the refugees are registered; it may involve the country of origin. However, immediate action is often possible, for example to reunite members of an extended family or village who fled at different times or by different means, and are thus in different locations in the country of asylum.

Procedures for the reunion of refugees separated within the country of asylum should be agreed with the authorities and implemented as soon as practicable. For example, lists of names with photographs posted on the community notice boards in the different locations may provide a simple and effective tracing mechanism. The tracing arrangements must be widely promulgated; a central contact point in each site is likely to be needed. Tracing is a delicate task, and has to be organized by people who have the necessary experience and skills. It of course requires the involvement of refugees themselves, who will play a key role in any tracing service.

Preventing Family Separation

Where large numbers of refugees are involved, efforts must be made to keep families intact and to reduce the pressures mat cause them to separate (see next page).

Re-establishing Cultural Patterns: Refugees should be encouraged to re-establish cultural patterns that will help them to adjust to their new situation. Outside assistance with this should only be in response to what the refugees, themselves, see as important. Appropriate action will vary widely among refugee groups. The following have proved useful in certain situations:

· helping refugees establish cultural or religious centres
· organizing refugee self-help committees
· promoting cooperation between traditional healers and outside health staff
· establishing a team of refugee community workers
· supporting literacy programmes in the first language of the refugees.

Re-establishing religious and other institutions that maintain cultural norms may help prevent anti-social behaviour and resulting security problems among refugees.

Information: Uncertain about their present and future well-being, refugees need information to guide them. They are, for example, often unaware of services available to them. Information is the responsibility of UNHCR and its implementing partners.

Issues of concern will vary in importance according to the situation and will changer over time. In an emergency these may include:

· assistance and services available
· government policies and regulations concerning refugees
· opportunities for employment, services, education.

When facts are not available from official sources, rumours fill the void. This can lead refugees into inappropriate action or inaction. A lack of information can, in the longer term, lead to severe stress, resulting in anxiety and depression, conflicts within families, abuse of alcohol/drugs, or other self-destructive or anti-social behaviour.

Refugees most in need are often those least likely to use available services. While other reasons, such as difficulty of access or cultural barriers, may be responsible, refugees may fail to use services because they are not aware they exist, do not know how to use them or have inaccurate information about them. Information can be passed on to refugees through:

· group orientation sessions
· community outreach services
· distributing material written in the language(s) of the refugees
· using refugee community workers
· providing information through a refugee committee or refugee leaders
· films, slides or other audio-visual media.

Some Causes of Family Separation

1. Organized movements of large numbers of refugees

Preventive action:

· Enlist refugee leaders to help with preparations for the movement,
· Announce the movement as far in advance as possible,
· Encourage family members to group together on vehicles.

2. Undermining of role of males and lack of opportunities for selfsupport leading men to leave families in search of income

Preventive action:

· Early attention to providing economic opportunities or other productive activities can reduce the number of men who leave their families.

3. Undermining of the role of mothers (through chronic ill health, malnourishment, physical or mental disability)

Preventive action:

· Special attention to protecting the health of mothers especially when resources are limited.

4. Highly visible residential centres for unaccompanied refugees (children, the elderly or disabled) can encourage some people to leave their families, expecting to receive better or specialized assistance

Preventive action:

· Providing care through families instead of centres avoids this problem.

5. Inability of families headed by a single parent (especially when the parent Is male) to cope

Preventive action:

· Providing special support to such families.

Refugee Participation: Community services providers can strengthen a programme of assistance by organizing constructive refugee participation. Refugees can be involved in needs and resources assessment, planning and implementing assistance measures and evaluating the results. The degree of participation will depend on the situation. Limiting factors may include:

· refugee limitations (technical skills, management experience, motivation, limited resources, restrictive policies, socio-cultural practices)

· reluctance of agency staff to give up control

· government concern about refugees controlling activities.

Possible Forms of Participation:

Self-help activities and mutual support groups. Self-help activities and mutual support groups often develop naturally or as a result of conscious refugee initiatives. Community workers seek to identify and support these as needed. Where they do not exist but could be useful, community workers, together with any technical specialists required, can help organize such activities.

These may include:

· Setting up of a refugee committee (selected by refugees) to provide a two-way information link between refugees and UNHCR/implementing partners.

· Established refugees assisting new arrivals with information, support and practical assistance with housing and other matters.

· Production of items for use in camps.

· Construction of community facilities.

· Care of needy individuals.

Refugee leadership

By accepted refugee leaders:

· representing the interests of the refugee community when dealing with government administrators and aid organizations.

· carrying out or supervising such basic tasks as distributing aid, assigning housing and settling disputes.

Requirements for Effective Refugee Participation:

1. Organization

Although there are exceptions, effective refugee participation usually requires some outside help in the initial stages of planning and organization. The role of the non-refugee organizer includes helping refugees to:

· identify their needs, resources and goals
· mobilize their own resources
· make use of available outside resources
· develop their own systems of leadership and operation

The organizer's role is quite different from that of a leader. The organizer's place is in the background, guiding and assisting only when necessary.

2. Official support

Before refugees are asked to participate in decision-making, make sure that the government authorities and administrators are willing to accept the results. If there are limits to what they will accept, these must be made clear to the refugees.

3. Realistic approach

In an emergency the desire for refugee participation must be weighed against the need to get things done quickly. Consequently broad refugee participation in planning during the emergency phase may not be worth the time. Large-scale community participation is difficult to sustain over time. A practical approach is to:

· involve the general refugee community in setting priorities and making key decisions

· arrange for representatives selected by the community to be responsible for implementation

· provide opportunities for continuing participation of those who are interested (e.g. open meetings).

4. Realistic Objectives

The objectives to be achieved through participation must be realistic in terms of the background and skills of the refugees, the resources available and environmental or policy limitations.

5. Maintaining Momentum

Effective participation does not just happen. It requires careful planning and continuing effort to maintain it.

6. Background Knowledge

An organizer must be familiar with the cultural, social, political and economic dynamics within the refugee group to be organized.

7. Decentralization

If participation is to have meaning, authority for making decisions and using resources must be given to participants. Refugees are unlikely to be interested in simply providing advice, particularly when it can be easily disregarded.

Community Building/Development Process


Community development is an integrated development process aimed at improving the overall economic, social and cultural conditions of a community.


Old Chinese Verse by Lao Tse

Go in search of your people:
Love them;
Learn from them;
Plan with them;
Serve them;
Begin with what they have;
Build on what they know.
But of the best leaders when their task is
accomplished, their work is done, the people
all remark:

"We have done it ourselves."


Refugee participation in an assistance programme has costs to be recognised as well as benefits. In a specific situation, and especially in emergencies, these factors must be weighed against each other to decide what level and type of participation is justified.

Some potential benefits and costs of refugee participation

More realistic information for planning.
Services are more likely to address real needs.
The broader the scope of participation, the more likely project benefits will be distributed fairly.
More favourable community opinion of a project.
Additional labour, skills and other resources are made available.
Higher levels of commitment to achieving the goals agreed upon.
Effects are likely to be more long lasting.
Increased project effectiveness due to all the above.
Increased sense among participants of self-worth and of having control over their lives.
More time required to allow for involvement in planning and for training.
Additional costs due to increased staff time.
May have to consider different needs from those administrators see as priorities.
Loss of short-term efficiency when refugees are expected to perform unfamiliar tasks.
Lowering of professional standards when refugees assume technical roles with limited training.
May run a higher risk of failure if a project is directed by participants away from its original objectives, or if their technical performance is not adequate.
Loss of time spent directly on economic activities when time is required for planning and decision-making.


While participation and refugee involvement may sometimes retard the process of assistance, because of the intervening learning that takes place, in the long term it will ensure a self-help approach which is the goal of all assistance. Taking time to train refugees is well worth the effort and time required.


Community Participation in Environmental Activities


The arrival of a refugee influx greatly intensifies existing environmental problems in an area and their impact on the environment is quickly felt by the refugees themselves, particularly in harmful effects on the health of women, children and vulnerable groups.

Refugee and host community participation in environmental activities is a cornerstone of UNHCR's reformulated policy. Unless refugees are aware of their responsibility to conserve the local environment, preventive measures are unlikely to succeed. Participation in decision-making helps to create that awareness.

Fostering participation is the most cost-effective environmental measures which can be introduced in the emergency phase. With very little investment in money terms, the success of many technical measures can be greatly enhanced.

It is likely that encouraging refugee and host community participation in environmental decision-making will bring to the surface tensions and conflicts, in the short term. However, by opening up communication between refugees, host communities, host government authorities, local and international NGOs and UNHCR, on a range of environmental issues, the long-term escalation into violence of resource-management conflicts can be avoided or minimized. Similarly, political pressures faced by UNHCR over inappropriate environmental management can be defused if genuine sharing of responsibility occurs.


The fundamental question to answer here is: who participates in whose activities? We should not simply invite refugees to contribute to their labour to UNHCR or implementing partner "projects", imposed upon them by foreign "experts". Refugee and local communities must be engaged in decision-making about local resource management. The crucial issue is ownership of and responsibility for the process of change.

If refugees and local people are enabled to join UNHCR as partners in decisions about the assessment of needs, the setting of environmental programme and activity objectives, the planning of activities, the allocation of resources, the process of implementation, monitoring and evaluation, then that participation will be meaningful and not token.

Genuine mutual respect must be fostered for the traditional environmental knowledge and coping mechanisms of both refugee and host communities and for the benefits of modern science. In managing the environment of refugee-affected areas, both are vital.

Local land tenure arrangements, including usufruct rights to common lands must be considered in consultations over the environment.

Incentives to participation must be handled with consistency and sensitivity.

Environmental issues must be placed high on whatever participatory mechanisms begin to emerge during the first days of the influx. If a committee structure develops, it may be possible to encourage the establishment of a local environmental task force, including representatives of refugee and local host communities, local government officials, local and international NGOs and UNHCR. Clearly it is necessary that such a task force be as representative of the full range of refugee and local community interests as possible. The environmental task force will be vital in helping create a consensus among all concerned over the objectives, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of environmental activities.


After consultation with refugee and local community leaders and other sectoral specialists, the environmental specialist on the emergency team may recommend a combination of the following measures, among others, during the emergency phase, depending upon local geographic, climatic and economic conditions:

· tree marking

· tree planting, to prevent erosion and possibly later for fuelwood harvesting

· organized fuelwood distribution

· alternative energy sources (e.g. kerosene, solar, crop residues)

· promotion of environmentally friendly cooking practices, e.g. pre-soaking hard, dry foods, milling grains, cutting food into small portions, limiting the extent of the fire to family, communal and institutional cooking arrangements

· fuel efficient cooking devices, such as improved stoves, solar cookers

· sound waste disposal, e.g. recycling of wastes for compost, mulch and fertiliser

· water conservation measures

· sound sanitation practices

· sustainable shelter practices, e.g. minimizing pole requirements, improving mortar ix

· environmental awareness campaigns to increase acceptance and understanding of all the above measures.

Check List

Are refugees' efforts to re-establish community social structures and institutions being supported? Are there places where they can gather informally to hold meetings, etc.?

Do refugees have a means of communicating with family members from whom they have been separated?

Has a tracing service been set up? Have the refugees been informed about the service?

Have policies and procedures for reunion been agreed with the authorities?

Are refugees informed about: assistance and services available, government policies and regulations that affect them, opportunities for employment, education and other services?

Have community leaders, health professionals, TBAs, teachers, traditional healers, been identified/mobilized?

What are refugees doing to help themselves?

Have refugees been able to participate in planning and implementation of assistance?

Are traditional coping mechanisms reactivated?. If not, why not?

Have mutual and/or self-support groups been organized?

Is there a refugee committee? If not, can one be set up?

Have potential refugee community workers been identified, recruited, trained?

What action is being taken to prevent family separation?

What is the cultural, social, political and economic profile of the refugee community?