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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder5. Initial Assessment, Immediate Response
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOrganizing the Assessment
View the documentImmediate Response
View the documentProtection and Material Assistance
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes




1. Emergency assistance must be based on a sound, though rapid, assessment of the refugees' most immediate problems and needs and the resources available to meet those needs.

2. The objective of the initial problem analysis and needs assessment is to provide UNHCR with a clear and concise picture of the emergency situation, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. It should provide enough information to predict the evolution of the emergency, at least in the short term. It is the basis for decisions which affect the future of the operation.


More detailed assessments will follow as the emergency develops and needs evolve: assessment never stops.

The initial and subsequent assessments are intricately linked with, and will form the basis for, operations planning. The initial assessment will also build on the contingency planning process.

4. The initial assessment should:

Answer the questions "what is the main problem?" and "is there an emergency or not?";

Provide sufficient information to decide whether UNHCR should be involved in the emergency response and what the scope of that involvement should be;

Be an inter-agency initiative, but with one body providing the overall coordination. The team should include staff from UNHCR, the government and other potential partners (for example other UN agencies, NGOs). Ideally the inter-agency body used for contingency planning should provide the basis for the group carrying out a simple problem and needs assessment. Often the people carrying out the initial assessment will simultaneously be providing the initial response. Whenever possible, the assessment team should include those who will implement the emergency operation in the field;

Be carried out quickly;

Provide a full picture of the scope of the emergency, rather than focus on a limited area or sector (it is better to get the whole picture half right);

Describe the people affected by the emergency (a simple demographic profile);

Identify the coping ability of the refugees themselves;

Identify locally available resources;

Identify what are the most immediate priorities;

Use agreed and appropriate standards against which needs can be measured;

Involve the refugees, women and men, from the outset. Get to know them and understand their concerns. They are a key source of information;

Record the sources of information collected;

Cross-check information, not relying on only one tool (e.g. aerial surveys cross-checked by on the ground observations and interviews);

Involve appropriate technical input;

Use samples and surveys rather than collect too much detailed information which is difficult to analyze;

Produce recommendations for immediate action indicating the resources needed to implement them;

Be able to trigger an immediate and effective response;

Have the results shared promptly and widely.

5. The assessment should, as a minimum, answer the questions in the checklist in Annex 1. This includes essential minimum information required for planning an emergency operation.

6. The initial assessment should focus on the priority life threatening problems which are usually in the sectors of protection, water, food, sanitation, shelter and health. The assessment should measure the actual condition of the refugees against what is needed for their survival and immediate well-being (expressed as "standards"). The resources at their disposal should also be assessed.

The setting of standards appropriate for the situation is an important prerequisite for needs assessment.

7. Standards provide a benchmark against which the condition of the refugees can be measured (see Appendix 2 for some of the minimum survival standards). The standards established for emergency assistance must be consistent with the aim of ensuring the survival and basic well-being of the refugees, be fairly applied for all refugees and be respected by all involved.

8. The document Initial Assessment in Emergency Situations: a Practical Guide for Field Staff (see references) includes more detailed checklists for assessments, and contains practical information on principles, planning, techniques, methods, and forms. See also chapter 6 on operations planning for an example of a Gap Identification Chart, a useful tool for comparing needs and resources.

Organizing the Assessment

9. The initial assessment must be carried out on the spot as soon as it is clear that a refugee emergency may exist. The assessment must involve the government and other key actors.

10. Immediate access to the area where the refugees are located is, of course, a prerequisite. Getting the assessment underway as soon as possible requires quick, practical steps: establish a presence at or near the refugee site for first hand information, interview refugees, use other available sources of information, mobilize local expertise and resources.

11. While an organized approach is necessary, time must not be lost simply because the desired expertise is not immediately available. Where UNHCR is already present, initial action must not be delayed pending the arrival of staff with more expertise.

A quick response to obviously urgent needs must never be delayed because a comprehensive assessment has not yet been completed.

12. Planning the assessment involves setting the objectives, establishing the terms of reference and selecting team members. The assessment plan should indicate which information should be collected and the report should make clear if it was not possible to collect that information.

13. If UNHCR is not already present in the country, the assessment mission will normally be organized by Headquarters.

14. Any problem and needs assessment should start with a review of the existing background information (mission reports, media articles, situation reports, local maps). Ideally, a contingency plan would have been prepared and kept updated and would provide input for the assessment and the immediate response. UNHCR Headquarters can provide maps and geographical information from a computerized database. The maps and information can be tailored to the specific requirements of the assessment. The assessment should also include interviews with the refugees and others involved.

15. Tools commonly used in assessments are:

i. Questionnaires;

ii. Checklists;

iii. Visual Inspection.

16. A combination of tools is normally used in order to cross-check the conclusions. Questionnaires and checklists (see Annex 1 for a basic checklist) are particularly useful because they standardize the approach and force the assessors to plan ahead and decide which information needs to be collected. Visual inspections provide general information and can put into context data from more systematic assessments.

Immediate Response

17. Gathering information about problems, needs and resources on the one hand, and the establishment of standards on the other, will allow the immediate unmet needs to be determined.

The most urgent actions must be taken with whatever local material and organizational resources are available, even if the information at hand is incomplete.

18. In order to ensure urgent survival needs are met, the most important initial actions are likely to be: i. Ensuring the capacity to act; ii. Protection; iii. Organizational considerations.

Ensure the Capacity to Art

19. The first priority is to provide the organizational capacity required to meet the needs of the emergency.

Enough UNHCR and implementing partner staff of the right calibre and experience must be deployed.

It may be necessary to invoke emergency procedures for the allocation of funds, implementing arrangements, food supply, local purchase, and recruitment of personnel. See Appendix 1 for details of how to access UNHCR emergency response resources. With the government, the resources of other UN organizations, particularly UNICEF and WFP, and of the NGO sector must be mobilized within the framework of a plan for immediate action.



Unless the refugees' right to asylum is assured there can be no assistance programme.

Action must be taken to this end, and to ensure their security and fundamental human rights. The importance of a UNHCR presence where the refugees are located has been stressed. Specific measures may be needed, for example to meet the special protection problems and needs of groups at risk (unaccompanied children, single young girls, minorities, etc.), and to protect the refugees against arbitrary actions of outsiders and against groups within their own number who may pose a threat to their safety.

Organizational Considerations

21. UNHCR must establish a presence where the refugees are, with assured communications with the main office and with Headquarters. The organization of the necessary logistical capacity to deliver the assistance will be of critical importance.

22. The priority, once problems and needs have been assessed, will be to provide vital assistance wherever the refugees are located. There will also, however, be key organizational or planning decisions to take, some of which may determine the future shape of the whole operation. These often include the points summarized below; decisions on them should be seen as a part of the immediate response.

If such decisions go by default or are wrong they will be very difficult to correct later.

Protection and Material Assistance

The Location of the Refugees

23. This will have a major influence on protection and all sectors of assistance. If the refugees have spontaneously settled in a scattered manner, they should not be brought together unless there are compelling reasons for breaking their present settlement pattern. If they are already in sites which are judged to be unsatisfactory, move them. The difficulty in moving refugees from an unsuitable site increases markedly with time. Even if those already there cannot be moved, divert new arrivals elsewhere (see chapter 12 on site planning).

Control at the Sites

24. Determine the optimum population in advance and plan for new sites accordingly. Keep careful control of actual occupation of the site as refugees arrive, so that sections prepared in advance are filled in an orderly manner.

Numbers and Registration

25. An accurate estimate of numbers is a prerequisite for effective protection and assistance. Efficient delivery of help to all in need will require at least family registration which should be organized as soon as possible. Nevertheless the initial provision of assistance may have to be based on a population estimation rather than full registration (see chapters 11 and 13 on registration and commodity distribution).

Urgent Survival Needs

26. Meet the most urgent survival needs: food, water, emergency shelter, health care and sanitation, ensuring fair distribution:

i. Involve the refugees and promote their self-reliance from the start. If this is not done the effectiveness of the emergency assistance will be severely reduced, and an early opportunity to help the refugees to start to recover from the psychological effects of their ordeal may be missed;

ii. Food. Ensure that at least the minimum need for energy is met; a full ration can follow. Set up special feeding programmes if there are clear indications of malnutrition. Establish storage facilities;

iii. Water. Protect existing water sources from pollution and establish maximum storage capacity with the simplest available means. Transport water to the site if the need cannot otherwise be met;

iv. Emergency shelter. Meet the need for roofing and other materials from local sources if possible. Request outside supplies (e.g. plastic sheeting) if necessary;

v. Health care. Provide the necessary organizational assistance, health personnel and basic drugs and equipment in close consultation with the national health authorities. Although the immediate need and demand may be for curative care, do not neglect preventive and particularly environmental health measures;

vi. Sanitation. Isolate human excreta from sources of water and accommodation.

27. Take steps to meet the social needs and reunite families if necessary. Surveys may be necessary to identify those in need, who often do not come forward. Tracing may be required. If groups of refugees have been separeted, they should be reunited. Special measures to ensure the care of any unaccompanied children will be a priority.

28. Once these and other priority measures are underway, begin the wider planning process.

Key References

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


Annex 1 - Checklist for Initial Assessment

This checklist is based on a refugee influx, it should be modified in the light of the actual nature of the emergency.

Who are the refugees, their numbers, and pattern of arrival

Approximately how many refugees are there?

Where have the refugees come from? Why?

What is the rate of arrival? Is it likely to increase or decrease? a What is the total number likely to arrive?

What is the location of the arrival points and of the sites where people are settling (latitude and longitude)?

Are the refugees arriving as individuals or in groups? Are these family groups, clans, tribal, ethnic or village groups?

Are families, village groups and communities intact?

How are the refugees organized? Are there group or community leaders?

How are the refugees travelling - on foot, in vehicles?

What is the gender ratio of the population?

What is the age profile of the population? Can a breakdown in age be given - under five's, age 5 to 17 years, 18 years and over?

How many unaccompanied minors are there? What is their condition?

What was the social and economic situation of the refugees prior to their flight? What are their skills and languages? What is their ethnic and cultural background?

Are there individuals or groups with special social problems? Are there particular groups made more vulnerable by the situation? (e.g. the disabled, separated minors or elderly people in need of support)

What are the basic diet, shelter, and sanitation practices of the refugees?

What is the security situation within the population - is there a need for separation between different groups, are there armed groups within the population?

What is the formal legal status of the refugees?

Characteristics of the location

What are the physical characteristics of the area where the refugees are located?

What is the soil, topography and drainage?

Is there enough space for those there and those likely to arrive?

Is there all season accessibility?

Can the refugees access relief assistance from where they are located?

What is the vegetation cover?

Will the refugees need to use wood for fuel and shelter?

Approximately how many people already live in the local area?

Who owns (or has usage rights on) the land?

Is there grazing land and are there potential areas for cultivation?

What is the actual or likely impact on the local population and what is their attitude and that of the local authorities towards the refugees?

Are there security problems?

What environmental factors must be taken into account (e.g. fragility of the local environment and extent to which local community relies on it; how rapidly might it be degraded by the refugees, proximity to protected areas)?

What is the condition of the local population? If assistance is provided to the refugees, should the local population also be assisted?

Health status and basic problems

Are there significant numbers of sick or injured persons, is there excess mortality?

Are there signs of malnutrition?

Do the refugees have access to sufficient quantities of safe water?

Do the refugees have food stocks, for how long will they last?

Do the refugees have adequate shelter?

Are adequate sanitary facilities available?

Do the refugees have basic domestic items?

Is there sufficient fuel for cooking and heating?

Resources, spontaneous arrangements and assistance being delivered

What type and quantity of possessions have the refugees brought with them?

What arrangements have the refugees already made to meet their most immediate needs?

What assistance is already being provided by the local population, the government, UN organizations and other organizations, is the assistance adequate, sustainable?

Is the present assistance likely to increase, continue, decrease?

What is the government's policy on assistance to the refugees?

Are there any major constraints likely to affect an assistance operation?

Has contingency planning for this type of emergency been undertaken?

What coordination arrangements are required?

Means to Deliver Protection and Assistance

Can effective implementing arrangements be made quickly and locally, if not, what are the alternatives?

Is there already an identified refugee leadership with whom it will be possible to coordinate the delivery of protection and assistance?

What are the logistical needs and how can they be met?

Where will the necessary supplies come from?

How will they reach the refugees?

What storage is needed, where and how?

Are there essential items which can only be obtained outside the region and whose early supply will be of critical importance (e.g. food, trucks?)

What are the needs for UNHCR and implementing partner staff and staff support?