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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentUsing the Handbook
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentUNHCR's Mission Statement
close this folder1. Aim and Principles of Response
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View the documentDefinition and Aim
View the documentResponsibilities
View the documentPrinciples of Response
close this folder2. Protection
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View the documentIntroduction
View the documentProtection in Emergencies
View the documentInitial Actions
View the documentPhysical Safety of Refugees
View the documentEmergencies as a Result of Changes in Government Policy
View the documentOther Persons of Concern to UNHCR
View the documentDurable Solutions
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close this folder3. Emergency Management
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View the documentThe Key Emergency Management Functions
View the documentStages in Refugee Emergency Operations
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close this folder4. Contingency Planning
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close this folder5. Initial Assessment, Immediate Response
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close this folder6. Operations Planning
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close this folder7. Coordination and Site Level Organization
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close this folder8. Implementing Arrangements
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close this folder9. External Relations
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View the documentRelations with Government and Diplomatic Corps
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close this folder10. Community Services and Education
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close this folder11. Population Estimation and Registration
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close this folder12. Site Selection, Planning and Shelter
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close this folder13. Commodity Distribution
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View the documentThe Role of Refugee Women
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close this folder14. Health
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View the documentHealth Assessment, Planning, Monitoring and Surveillance
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close this folder15. Food and Nutrition
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close this folder16. Water
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close this folder17. Environmental Sanitation
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close this folder18. Supplies and Transport
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close this folder19. Voluntary Repatriation
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close this folder20. Administration, Staffing and Finance
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close this folder21. Communications
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close this folder22. Coping with Stress
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close this folder23. Staff Safety
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close this folder24. Working with the Military
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View the documentKey References
View the documentAppendix 1 - Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources
View the documentAppendix 2 - Toolbox
View the documentAppendix 3 - Memoranda
View the documentAppendix 4 - Glossary

Groups at Risk and Vulnerable Groups

· Develop and strengthen community-based support for vulnerable groups wherever possible;

· Ensure that children are cared for in ways that meet both their physical and emotional needs; individual care of unaccompanied children is all-important;

· Ensure that all groups among the refugees can participate in decision making affecting their well-being.


27. In dealing with vulnerable groups, community based support is preferred, and only as a last resort should small, special facilities be established. These should be short-term to shelter vulnerable individuals while identifying community support mechanisms.

28. Experience shows that in refugee emergencies certain groups are likely to be more at risk than others. Standard criteria for vulnerability, and for eligibility for the provision of special assistance should be developed in conjunction with refugees. Some groups may be excluded from decisions directly affecting their wellbeing, and the particular needs of these groups may be unintentionally ignored or excluded in programme development. This exclusion may result in making the group vulnerable. This is often the case with minority groups. Women, who often make up the majority of the population, can be excluded in much the same manner.

29. In emergencies vulnerable refugees may need special transport where the refugee has physical problems which would prevent long distance movement. This would include older persons, the disabled, women in late pregnancy, severely malnourished or those in severe psychological distress. If special transport is needed, the refugee should be accompanied by a responsible attendant (usually a relative) and a clear reunion point identified to prevent further vulnerability through separation.

30. When individual casework is necessary, up-to-date records and confidential individual dossiers should be kept, and a simple periodic reporting system instituted, focusing on the needs identified and services provided rather than giving just statistical data. It is important that case records are transferred with refugees when they are moved. A coordinated response avoids unnecessary repetition of basic interviewing which is not only a waste of time but can also be psychologically damaging.

Children (including Adolescents)

31. For the purposes of this Handbook, "children" should be understood to mean "persons below the age of 18 years" (as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), and therefore includes young children and adolescents.

32. Children make up a large proportion of most refugee populations. Early interventions during emergencies will help to normalize and stabilize their situation. Specialized agency expertise may be needed for parts of a child-focused programme.

33. Birth registration may be a prerequisite for obtaining nationality, enrolling in school and may be a vital tool for tracing. It can also be important in preventing military recruitment and other forms of exploitation. Ensure that the births of all refugee children are registered. Ideally births should be registered through the same procedure applicable to nationals. Where this is not possible the authorities should be encouraged to establish a separate birth registration system for refugee births. If this is not possible either, organize a temporary attestation system to ensure, at a minimum, that the date, place of birth and the names and nationalities of both parents are recorded. The UNHCR Field Office or the Red Cross/Red Crescent could, for example, issue such an attestation.

34. Different age groups will have different problems, young children have very different needs from teenagers.

35. UNHCR has an MOU with UNICEF which outlines their respective responsibilities for children and unaccompanied minors- UNICEF takes the lead in countries of origin and UNHCR in countries of asylum (see MOU attached as Appendix two).

36. Take the following action:

Identify and develop community-based mechanisms to monitor refugee childrens' assistance and protection needs;

Identify whether the child population as a whole might have any specific characteristics or needs as a consequence of the trauma of their flight and life before finding asylum: in particular, where children have been victims of and/or participants in armed conflict, or might have particular psychological, physical or social problems as a consequence;

Identify what current risks there may be to the child population: for example a risk of on-going military recruitment, or of sexual exploitation or abuse;

Promote the social role of adolescents in the community and their responsibility towards others in need, for example they can serve as community workers. Adolescents will need support, especially if they have assumed adult roles as heads-of-households. They will also need access to and education about reproductive health services, and vocational training;

Coordinate with the health and nutrition sectors in organizing education campaigns and outreach activities in community health, nutrition and sanitation, such as promoting breast feeding, immunization and feeding programmes;

Organize play groups, recreation activities and emergency education for pre-schoolers and for school age children including girls and vulnerable children;

Identify resources within and outside the community which could be used to address the needs of children and young people (and their families). These community resources should encourage self-reliance, and work towards preventing domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and involvement in military activities;

Integrate the needs of children in all programming activities.

Unaccompanied Minors

37. UNHCR defines an unaccompanied minor as one who is below 18 years of age who has been separated from both parents and for whose care no person can be found who by law or custom has primary responsibility. Note that other organizations may have other definitions of unaccompanied minors. In addition, note that unaccompanied minors are sometimes also called separated minors.

38. Labelling children as orphans tends to encourage adoptions, (and in some cases, there may be enormous external pressure for orphanages and/or third country adoption) rather than focusing on family tracing, foster placements and increasing community support.

The description "unaccompanied minors", or "separated minors", should always be used in place of "orphans".

39. Although the government of the country of asylum should take legal responsibility for these minors, with UNHCR offering advice and assistance, in practice if government resources are thinly stretched, UNHCR may take a more pro-active role.

Prevention of Separation

40. Family unity must be preserved as much as possible - take no action that may prevent family reunion. The failure to protect family unity not only results in avoidable physical and emotional suffering, but subsequent efforts to reunite families are costly and difficult, and delays in family reunification will impede durable solutions. Although children are often separated from their families while their families are in flight, steps can be taken to minimize further separations, and to maximize the chances of timely and successful reunion.

Steps to prevent separation include supporting households at risk, and ensuring care provided to unaccompanied minors does not become an incentive for parents to abandon their children to institutionalized care.

41. There is sometimes pressure to rescue minors from dangerous situations but some child-only evacuations have caused years of separation and in some cases the breaks have been permanent. The physical dangers may be over estimated, while the children's psychological need to be with their parents may be under appreciated.

There should be no evacuations separating children from their parents or others recognized as primary caretakers (custody) unless essential to protect life.

42. If an evacuation is essential, the following safeguards should be observed. Minors should be accompanied by an adult relative, and if this is not possible, by a qualified care-giver known to the children, such as their teachers. The minors' identities must be fully documented before departure. Whenever possible, documentation should travel with the minors, and caregivers should be waiting at the destination. The evacuation must be coordinated with the designated lead agency. If the minors are moved across an international border, written agreements with the government should be secured in advance in order to ensure family visits and reunions are possible.

43. Continuity of existing care arrangements will help avoid further disruption and may facilitate reunion. Siblings should be kept together, as should unrelated children who have been living together and give each other emotional support.

Assessment, Identification, Registration and Tracing

44. Make a rapid assessment of the situation of unaccompanied minors among the refugee population. The first source of information for identifying unaccompanied minors will be the refugees themselves and the community leaders. A general registration or census of refugees may provide a suitable occasion for initial identification without raising expectations before seeking more detailed information.

45. A general registration or census will also identify those children not alone, but not with their immediate family, and who thus require tracing. Give priority to identifying children under five years, girls who may be subject to sexual abuse and boys who may be recruited into military service.

46. Once identified, unaccompanied minors should be individually registered as soon as possible (see Annex 2, unaccompanied minor registration form).

Registration should not raise expectations for special status and advantage.

The Emergency Kit for Unaccompanied Children provides guidance and tools for identification, registration, and tracing. This can be ordered from Headquarters and contains a priority actions handbook, emergency registration books, cameras, equipment and basic supplies.

47. Ensure that children are issued with separate registration documents and ration cards and that these documents (including a recent photograph), always travel with the child. These measures will avoid confusion if a fostering arrangement breaks down.

48. Unaccompanied minors should be individually assessed and medically screened. A sympathetic and imaginative approach to interviewing children is very important and best conducted by carefully trained refugees, if possible by someone the child already knows and trusts. If an interview has to take place through an interpreter, the interpreter must be well briefed, with his or her role limited to direct translation, and must not be allowed to break personal contact between interviewer and child. Children may react very differently, depending, for example, on the degree of their trauma, fear and shyness. The presence of the child's friend(s) at the interview can not only reassure the child but may also yield important information. Any accompanying adults or persons who brought the child forward should also be interviewed.

49. As soon as unaccompanied minors are identified, start to trace their parents or families. Family tracing is not considered exhausted before a two year investigation has been completed. All claims for reunification must be verified, as mistakes and false claims sometimes occur.

Care and Protection of Unaccompanied Minors

50. Children separated from their immediate next-of-kin during a refugee emergency are often cared for by the refugee community, frequently within an extended family.

It is only where children cannot be cared for by the community that special measures will be required for their care.

Whenever possible, children should be placed with families, as institutional placements cannot provide adequately for children's developmental needs and social and cultural integration into society. Ideally, they should be cared for by relatives or others from the same ethnic or cultural groups.

51. One of the most important principles in the care of any child is that relationships must be stable, because of the importance of the emotional bond developed with the care-giver. An unaccompanied minor must be placed in a family where bonding can continue until the parent(s) or recognized first caretaker(s) are found. The child will then need time to reestablish a bond with his or her parent(s) or original caretaker(s). A period of overlap with the two families may therefore be necessary, in order to permit the re-establishment of the relationship with the parents while avoiding an abrupt severance of the ties with the foster family. Where years have elapsed, the child's interests may be better served by remaining with the foster family. UNHCR's usual practice is to allow unaccompanied minors over 15 to take decisions concerning durable solutions for themselves.

52. Criteria for foster family care should be worked out together with the community. Foster care arrangements should be formalized as quickly as possible by signed contracts or agreements, with an understanding that children should be returned to their immediate family if located. Particularly needy host families may be provided with an incentive to support the child on a case by case basis, but not as a systematic measure for all foster families. Food rations and other normal assistance should of course, continue to be provided for the child through the foster family. However, the child should continue to have registration and ration documents separate from those of the foster family. Foster care arrangements should be monitored closely through outreach activities in the community. Careful account should be taken of cultural attitudes towards fostering. For instance, in some situations, a family may find it hard to conceive of taking in a child except as a servant.

53. Where child care centres are necessary, they should be small, decentralized within the community, and integrated into community activities.

Remember that when the facilities and services provided for unaccompanied children are significantly better than those otherwise available, parents may actually place children in special care.

54. The advantage of small residential centres is that if reunification with the parents is expected to take place quickly, such centres provide an efficient way of caring for the children while at the same time not losing sight of them during the upheaval and confusion at the start of an emergency.

Unaccompanied minors should be integrated into the life, activities and services available to other children. Avoid either marginalizing them or paying them special attention.

55. Ensure continuity and stability in care (foster families and other) by employing refugee and national community services staff who are less likely to move on than international staff.

56. Provide supervision, support and training to child care workers, including child interviewing techniques, child development, community mobilization and child trauma. Train refugees and aid workers to identify and register unaccompanied minors from the outset of an emergency.


57. While it is not correct to see women as a vulnerable group, women do have specific needs which, if not met, can put them at risk, such as vulnerability to exploitation and sexual abuse, sexual discrimination and restricted access to basic services. In addition, many decisions in camp management which affect women are made without them being consulted. Not including refugee women in decision making about camp management may put them at risk and add to their workload. In addition, the effectiveness of the assistance programme may be reduced because the problems and needs of all the beneficiaries have not been properly identified.

58. However, when seeking women's participation in decision-making, it is also wise to remember that measures which challenge the status quo may be threatening to traditional leaders. Special efforts may be needed to overcome resistance to change.

Culture and tradition cannot be used as reasons to exclude refugee women from participation in decision-making.

To Ensure Women's Participation:

Include refugee women in leadership functions and give them responsible roles in the community including participation in decision-making bodies;

Ensure that women have equal access to services and facilities, particularly health and reproductive health care services, and inform persons concerned about these resources;

Encourage activities such as adult literacy classes which will help empower women and bring them together for mutual support;

Provide community support to women by organizing recreational and educational activities for children;

Develop preventive protection mechanisms with the community to ensure protection of women against all forms of abuse;

Work with the elders and other influential groups to gain their support for the participation of women in camp management.

Single Parent Households

59. In refugee emergencies, the majority of single parent households are female-headed. However, community services must be sensitive to the needs of both male and female single parents. Men may have to be supported in the functions of rearing children and organizing household responsibilities. Women who have to manage the family needs on their own are at risk as they are vulnerable to exploitation and harassment, especially if they are young. They may be exposed to pressures attached to provision of food and material resources. Women must therefore be included in food management and other committees. Some women may have to resort to prostitution in order to provide for their families, particularly if they do not have any skills to earn a livelihood.

Survivors of Violence

60. Men, women and children can be victims of violence in conflict situations (including torture, rape or solitary confinement) and suffer consequent trauma. Rape is a crime of violence, and is sometimes used as a systematic method of intimidation. Survivors of rape can be any age from the very young to the very old and belong to any social group. It should be remembered that survivors of sexual violence including rape can be men as well as women. It is important to recognize that the consequences of sexual violence on children and adolescents will differ from that on adults.

61. Where there is a high risk of violence, steps can be taken to reduce exposure and vulnerability. Crimes of sexual violence may be more likely to occur where women and/or children are exposed and vulnerable, such as when they collect firewood or water from distant points. The level of risk of violence including sexual violence from within or outside the community, should be reflected in taking increased precautions in camp security, and in creating mechanisms to allow people to travel outside the camp in safety e.g. fuel-wood gathering in groups.

Take the Following Action

Establish services for survivors of violence which are integrated into other community and health care services;

Ensure confidentiality is maintained;

Organize counselling support services using trusted, supportive refugee staff, including female staff;

Organize support groups with people who are trusted;

Provide a safe place for survivors to stay, with friends if possible;

Ensure appropriate legal and medical services are established and accessible, including access to female staff;

Mobilize community support by discussing the general problem with them to ensure more compassionate treatment. Religious heads and community leaders in particular can influence attitudes to survivors of violence;

Ensure that site layout, fencing and lighting promote physical safety. Good site planning, including location of services, will help create conditions where violence will be less likely (see chapter 12 on site planning).

Sensitize the community to the problem and the seriousness of domestic violence. An emergency situation often triggers an increase in levels of domestic violence, particularly in the early stages. However, in the later stages of an emergency incidents of domestic violence may remain high and on occasion escalate, if the situation generates high levels of stress.

62. Urgent medical treatment must be provided to any person who has been raped to help deal with the physical trauma. A protocol for management of such persons, based on host country laws, should be adopted.

63. Post trauma reactions to sexual violence include feelings of shame and guilt, anger, humiliation, nightmares, withdrawal, depression and suicidal tendencies. Family, friends and community support groups must be alerted to these possible reactions so that they can understand and assist the survivors of violence.

64. Social attitudes to rape are usually very judgmental. A woman who becomes pregnant by rape may need help in being accepted by her family and the community or in placing a child for adoption. In some cases a man or a woman who has been raped may have to leave their present location in order to lead a normal life. This is especially the case of a woman with a child, who may then be left without family support. Additionally, she may feel hostile towards the child, a common post trauma reaction.

65. Any documentation of a case should be undertaken with the utmost confidentiality. It is the survivors choice whether or not to take legal action; there may be very strong considerations not to do so. If legal action is taken, the survivor will need support and protection in every step of what is a painful process, and should be made aware of exactly what degree of protection and care will be available.

66. Community services, protection and health staff must work together for survivors of rape and sexual violence. Protection staff can provide information on legal action and monitor the legal process if charges are pressed. Health personnel should make necessary treatment facilities and documentation available. Community services should work directly with the survivor concerned, and with the family of the survivor, as well as establish support groups and more generally sensitize refugees to the problems of rape. A refugee team, which could complement the UNHCR community services team, may be established to provide outreach to women reluctant to come forward.

Disabled and Handicapped

67. Disabled and handicapped persons might have problems in accessing goods and services available to refugees and steps must be taken to ensure this access, including that of disabled children to whatever schooling is available. In some refugee situations, but more often in returnee situations, additional dangers of land-mines mean that an information campaign must be started immediately to prevent further disability. Initial care for the disabled should be through families and the community, nevertheless, rehabilitation services (e.g. wheelchairs, crutches) should also be introduced as soon as possible. Community based rehabilitation to care for disabled people is an approach that should be promoted from the outset of an emergency.

Older Persons

68. The presence of older people in the community can strengthen the bonds and the sense of belonging. However, physical deterioration may limit their mobility and hence their access to basic services. Those most at risk are living alone or caring for young children.

Older persons can constitute a significant proportion of the refugee population though they are often overlooked.

69. Consideration should be given to include older persons in the supplementary feeding programmes. Even if older people can obtain food rations, limited mobility may preclude collection of water or fuel essential for food preparation.

70. For the more frail elderly, family and community care should be encouraged. Refugee community workers should identify neighbours, relatives or others who can help these people with food, water or fuel collection.

71. It should be kept in mind that after any repatriation, the elderly may make up a high proportion of refugees remaining behind in the country of asylum. Hence local government structures and local NGO capacity should be strengthened to care for them.

Isolated Social Groups

72. Every society has its social, religious, political or ethnic groups whose access to services is restricted even under normal conditions. They become particularly vulnerable during emergencies as assistance is likely to be channelled through the leaders of the majority groups. Immediate assessment should be made of any of these groups to determine if they can be integrated into the refugee community, or whether special provision must be made.

In the early stages of an emergency, cultural and traditional customs that may be harmful to particular groups of refugees such as genital mutilation, early marriages and other abusive practices should be addressed and appropriate action taken.