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close this bookRefugee Emergencies. A Community-Based Approach (UNHCR, 1996, 142 p.)
close this folderPart Two. Refugees at Risk
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVulnerable Groups, Minorities and Isolated Refugees
View the documentRefugee Children
View the documentUnaccompanied Children
View the documentRefugee Women
View the documentSingle-Parent Households
View the documentThe Elderly
View the documentThe Disabled
View the documentMental Health

Vulnerable Groups, Minorities and Isolated Refugees


The strength of a chain is in its weakest link, and that of a community in how it cares for those who are most in need.

In emergencies it is important to ensure that the physically, mentally or socially disadvantaged are able to meet their basic needs. Thus in the planning and implementation of emergency assistance, vulnerable groups must be identified and monitored systematically to ensure that they are not further disadvantaged. If necessary, special measures should be taken to meet their particular needs.

Assessment is Necessary: Not everyone in these groups will necessarily need special assistance. Many are able to care for themselves or are helped by family members, relatives, friends, neighbours, etc. It must be assessed which refugees lack support and need special assistance to meet their basic needs.

Within a refugee population of any significant size there will almost certainly be some individuals and families who do require special assistance. Consequently, the question is not whether to assist the disadvantaged groups but what should be done for whom.

Screening: As soon as possible identify those who require immediate attention (e.g. unaccompanied children, the sick and malnourished, victims of violence, severely handicapped individuals who lack support) and those who should be followed up later (e.g. single-parent families, unaccompanied women, elderly persons, disabled individuals who need rehabilitation).

When lists are available showing family groups and the age and sex of each person, identify single-parent families and unaccompanied people who may need assistance.

Assistance: Measures to benefit such groups of refugees should inter-alia ensure the following:

· basic daily needs for food, clothing and shelter

· special medical care (as in the case of the elderly, the disabled and the traumatized)

· special diet for the elderly, malnourished children, nursing mothers and pregnant women - if medically indicated

· transportation for the sick, the elderly and the disabled

· foster care for unaccompanied children.

Community-based Assessment: Those within a large refugee population who need special assistance can be identified through a combined effort of refugee leaders and trained refugee community workers. This avoids the barriers of culture and language faced by outsiders.

Planning Considerations: when planning assistance for refugees with special needs, give particular attention to:

· self-support as a long-term goal

· community integration

It is generally best for refugees with special needs to use the same services as other refugees. When specialized services are necessary, they can be community based.

· consultation with refugees

(It is important to hold consultations with the refugee community to find out how those with special needs would have been cared for in their home country and to gather opinions on how their needs can best be met under present circumstances.)

Family-based Care: As far as possible, assist refugees who have special needs through their families. For unaccompanied refugees, foster families (for the disabled, elderly or chronically ill adults, as well as children) can often be arranged. Family care has the advantages of:

· providing continuing personal attention
· being culturally appropriate
· helping social integration
· being less dependent on outside resources than institutional care.

Institutional Care: For the those who have no family support and are unable or have difficulty looking after them, consideration is often given to placing them in an institution or creating a special centre for their care. Although this can be appropriate in certain circumstances, first consider alternative possibilities:

· family reunification
· assistance in their homes for the elderly and disabled
· foster families
· religious centres established by the refugees themselves, if this is their tradition.

Groups at Risk

Community-based Approach

Community-based mechanisms for identification, registration, care and follow up

· Committees within the community of interested persons to identify, follow up the needs of these groups.

· Involvement of families and friends in this process as well as those with a special interest.

· Involve every group in the community to ensure that no one is forgotten (men, women, youths, girls, children): promote interaction between the groups (e.g. young people and the elderly) to rebuild community solidarity.

· Identify local institutions which have facilities for care and treatment, such as clinics, schools, hospitals, recreational facilities.

· Strengthen these institutions through training, investment of resources, awareness creation and support to personnel, attendance at joint meetings and recognition of work done.

· Enable those at risk to speak up and make their needs known. Encourage persons with similar problems to form support groups. Give these groups a voice in programme planning and implementation.

· Discuss with the community the overall goals of the programme, as well as constraints (e.g. finance, duration of support, personnel). Focus on the long-term sustainability of the programme and the need for self-help and self-reliance.

· Develop activities which will eventually result in supplementary support, financial or in kind, for example: agricultural activities, skills training, education.*

* Common policies on the payment of wages and/or incentives to refugees engaged in providing services to the community must be agreed and adopted from the outset by all the agencies/organizations involved in the programme. Possible incentives include: money, food for work, training, recognition in the form of uniforms, certificates, badges, public recognition by the community, status in me community, inclusion in the decision-making on community matters.

· These activities have the dual goals of

a) keeping people emotionally and psychologically alive and interested;
b) actively engaged in developing a better future for themselves.

This has a beneficial impact on their eventual preparation for repatriation and reintegration on their return home.

Ethnic Minorities and Other Isolated Refugees:

Every society has its social, religious, political or ethnic minorities whose access to services, even under normal conditions, is restricted. These groups of persons become particularly vulnerable in a refugee emergency, as assistance is likely to be channelled through the leaders of the majority groups. Furthermore, recent emergencies have demonstrated that persons from third countries, without links in the country of asylum, and without links in the larger refugee community, are also likely to be without access to assistance. Hence, efforts should be made by emergency service providers to identify isolated refugees and minority groups, to ensure that they have access to the same basic assistance provided to other refugees.

A good understanding of the socio-political composition of the refugee population may also help to prevent inadequate social engineering that would either further isolate minorities or bring antagonistic groups into confrontation.

In the distribution of assistance it is necessary to ensure that basic human needs are met for all.

Vulnerable Groups:

Persons identified to be in:

· a life threatening situation
· unable to help themselves
· lack family and normal support structures.

Groups commonly identified in most emergencies:

· unaccompanied children
· traumatized children
· unaccompanied young women
· isolated women
· the physically disabled
· the psychologically disabled
· unaccompanied elderly
· heads of households (male or female) without support
· victims of torture and violence
· social or ethnic minorities and other isolated refugees

Remember !

The refugees most in need are often the least likely to come forward to make their needs known.

Make sure that the most disadvantaged refugees are not overlooked.

Check List

Is there anyone in the family, or do you know anyone who has an illness or injury that needs treatment?

Is anyone having trouble taking care of himself or herself?

Is anyone having trouble getting enough food, water or cooking fuel?

Is there anyone who does not have the things needed for daily living, such as cooking utensils, cooking fuel, enough clothes, enough blankets?

Do you know anyone who does not have an adequate place to live or has difficulty putting up his/her tent or in building a hut?

Do you know of any children who are separated from their parents?

Do you know anyone who has difficulty in carrying out day-to-day activities because he cannot walk, cannot use his arms, cannot see or hear, cannot speak or is old and has no support?

Do you know anyone who has problems and is acting differently from usual?

Do you know anyone who sometimes has seizures?

Do you know anyone who is having a difficult time because he/she cannot locate a missing family member?

Are there single-parent households headed by men, with children below the age of five? Who is looking after these children?

Is the single parent able to cope with the situation? If not, is there anyone from the community who can help?

Do the needs and resources assessments include variables that allow the identification of sub-groups?

What safeguards have been introduced to ensure access of minority groups to basic assistance?

Are transit centres and camps designed in a way that can promote the interest of various groups with minimum conflict or rivalry?