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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder23. Staff Safety
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe UN Security System
View the documentEssential Plans
View the documentSecurity
View the documentSecurity Management
View the documentKey References




· The primary responsibility for the safety of staff members, their dependants and property and that of the organization, rests with the host government;

· Every effort should be made to facilitate the tasks of the government in the discharge of its responsibilities by making appropriate supporting arrangements and through regular liaison and exchange of information with the host country security officials;

· All of the recommendations below should be considered in addition to, and complementary with, actions taken by the host country security officials;

· Every office should have a security plan and a medical evacuation plan;

· The cardinal rule for landmines is that when in doubt, stay away. Inform the host country military. Any suspicious object should be treated as a landmine or booby trap.

The UN Security System

1. UN system-wide arrangements are described in detail in the UN Field Security Handbook (see references) and outlined here.

UN organizations have agreed to system-wide arrangements for the safety of UN staff and property in the field.

The UN Security Co-ordinator (UNSECOORD), based in New York, acts on behalf of the Secretary-General to ensure a coherent response by the UN to any security situation. UNSECOORD produces monthly publications on security conditions on a country by country basis. In addition, the Field Safety Section at Headquarters can provide country specific information and advice.


The primary responsibility for the security and protection of staff members rests with the host government.

This responsibility arises from every government's inherent role of maintaining law and order within its jurisdiction.

3. UNHCR and other UN organizations may lend assistance, when possible and to the extent feasible, to protect other people such as staff of NGOs working in co-operation with them. UNHCR has no legal obligation towards others working with refugees.

4. In each country, a senior UN official called the Designated Official (DO) is the person in charge of the security management arrangements of the UN system. The DO is accountable to the Secretary-General through UNSECOORD for the safety of UN personnel.

5. The principle responsibilities of the DO include:

Liaising with host government officials on security matters;

Arranging a security plan for the area and including provision for relocation of National staff and evacuation of International staff;

Informing the Secretary-General (through UNSECOORD) of all developments which may have a bearing on the safety of staff members;

Carrying out relocation or evacuation where a breakdown in communication makes it impossible to receive the Secretary-General's prior approval;

Forming a Security Management Team (SMT);

Informing the senior official of each UN organization of all security measures.

6. The DO will form an SMT, the function of which will be to advise him or her on security matters. The SMT is normally composed of: the DO; field security officers; a medical officer; an internationally recruited staff member familiar with local conditions and languages; a staff member with a legal background and any agency staff who by training, background or experience will contribute to the team.

7. In large countries with regions separated from country headquarters in terms of distance and exposure to emergencies, a UN staff member may be designated as the Area Security Co-ordinator (ASC). The ASC acts on the DO's behalf and will normally have responsibilities for staff safety similar to those of the DO, but within that region of the country. UNHCR may be requested by the DO to undertake this role.

8. The ASC (or DO where there is no ASC for the region) will appoint security wardens who will have responsibility for security within particular predetermined zones. A separate warden system for nationally recruited and internationally recruited staff may be required. The warden system should include all humanitarian agencies.

9. The primary tool for security preparedness is the security plan, which is the key feature of the UN security system.

Essential Plans

10. In addition to the basic security plan, UNHCR offices must have a medical evacuation plan, and may have a movement control plan and routine radio checks.

The Security Plan

11. The security plan will be country specific and have five phases. The DO may implement measures under Phases One and Two at his or her own discretion, and notify the Secretary General accordingly. Phases Three to Five will normally be declared by the DO only with the prior authorization of the Secretary-General. However, if there is a breakdown in communications, DOs may use their best judgement with regard to the declaration of phases Three to Five, and report to the Secretary-General as soon as communications allow.

12. The UN security phases are:

Phase I: Precautionary

In this phase, clearance from the DO is required prior to travel.

Phase II: Restricted Movement

This phase imposes a high level of alert on the movements of UN staff members and their families. During this phase all staff members and their families will remain at home unless otherwise instructed.

Phase III: Relocation

This phase is declared by the Secretary General, on the advice of the DO. It includes concentration of all international staff members and their families, relocation of non-essential staff and families elsewhere in, or out, of the country. Deployment of new staff must be authorized by the Secretary General.

Phase IV: Programme Suspension

This phase is declared by the Secretary General, on the advice of the DO. It allows for relocation outside the country of all international staff not directly involved with the emergency, humanitarian relief operations, or security matters.

Phase V: Evacuation

This phase is declared by the Secretary General, on the advice of the DO. The evacuation of all international staff should be carried out according to plans prepared beforehand.

13. The person responsible for security at each location (DO, ASC) should draw up a security plan within the framework of the country security plan. This will need to be regularly updated. Each situation will be different and will require different levels and structuring of the plan. Guidelines for drawing up the plan are in the Field Security Handbook, and copied in the Checklist for the Emergency Administrator.

14. The following are typical headings in a security plan:

A. Summary of the security situation at the duty station.

B. Officials responsible for security: those in the local area, in Geneva and in New York, with their call signs, phone and fax numbers.

C. List of internationally recruited staff members and dependants. This will need to be updated constantly, and should include basic details such as full name, nationality, date of birth, passport and laisser-passer numbers with date and place of issue. A means of tracking visiting missions should be established. The UN Field Security Handbook contains annexes to record this information in a standard format; copies of these are also found in the UNHCR Checklist for the Emergency Administrator.

D. List and details of locally recruited staff and their dependants. This will need to be updated constantly.

E. Division of area into zones. Zones should be marked on a map with the numbers and residences of staff-members clearly marked. The map should indicate the warden responsible for each zone.

F. Communications. This should include details of phone numbers, call-signs and radio frequencies of all staff, including those of offices in neighbouring countries.

G. Selection of co-ordination centre and concentration points. The plan should indicate a number of co-ordination centres and concentration points, and should indicate the stocks and facilities which should be available at these points. It may not be possible for all staff-members to reach the same concentration point and alternatives should be foreseen.

H. Safe haven and means for relocation and evacuation. The plan should include information on all possible means of travel -by air, road, rail and ship as applicable. Normally only internationally recruited staff can be evacuated outside the country. Under the UN security system, the provisions for evacuation outside the country may be applied to locally-recruited staff members in only the most exceptional cases in which their security is endangered, or their property is lost or damaged as a direct consequence of their employment by UN organizations. Under the UN security system, a decision to evacuate locally recruited staff can only be made by the Secretary-General (based on recommendations by DO and UNSECOORD). However, during phases 3, 4 or 5, the DO may exceptionally either a) permit locally recruited staff to absent themselves from the duty station on special leave with pay or b) may relocate them to a safe area within the country and authorize payment of DSA for up to 30 days. Up to three months salary advance may be paid and a grant to cover transportation costs for the staff member and eligible family members. Arrangements to pay locally recruited staff these various amounts should be included in the plan.

I. Essential supplies: The plan should include estimates of the requirements for essential items of food, water, fuel etc. which will be needed by the community for a reasonable period of time. Individual items to be kept ready should also be listed. These include: passports, laissez-passers, vaccination certificates, travellers cheques and cash.

J. Plan for handing over the running of the office to the National Officer in charge.

Planning for evacuation


The security plan should note who will take what actions at the UNHCR office in the event of evacuation.

These actions include how to deal with confidential documents and individual case files (including those on computer files), financial data, cash, radios, computers and vehicles.

16. Any paper files which need to be destroyed in the event of sudden evacuation of the office should have been marked in a manner agreed-upon and understood by all staff. Such files would include: individual case files, local staff personnel files, etc. If time permits, the shredding and/or burning of these files should be a top priority. Emptying sensitive files onto the floor and mixing their contents with others will afford some protection if there is no time to burn them. Staff should be sensitive to the security situation and bear in mind when creating paper or electronic documentation that it might have to be left behind.

17. It should be agreed in advance which electronic files (including electronic mail files) should be deleted first. In order to truly destroy confidential electronic records from a computer disk (regardless of whether it is a hard disk or a floppy disk), it is necessary to use special software designed for this purpose. Merely deleting the file(s) does not remove the information from the disk, it only marks the space which the file occupies on the disc as being available for re-use.

1 Contained in IOM/104/94 FOM107/94.

Medical Evacuation Plan

18. Every office should have a medical evacuation plan to cover evacuation from that office. The plan should include information about the nearest medical facilities inside and (if appropriate) outside the country, what types of service they provide and to what standard, means of transport to these facilities in case of evacuation, and types of evacuation scenarios (the Checklist for the Emergency Administrator includes a format for a Medevac Plan, as well as flow charts1 for decision making for evacuation).

19. All heads of UNHCR country offices (i.e. representatives, chiefs of mission or, in their absence, the officer in charge) may authorize, without reference to Headquarters, medical evacuation of staff in the circumstances set out in detail in IOM/104/94FOM/107/94, New Medical Evacuation Scheme, and IOM/FOM 26/95, Medical Evacuation in Extreme Emergencies - SOS Assistance. These IOM/FOMs are included in the Checklist for the Emergency Administrator. Briefly, medical evacuation can be authorized:

i. For all international staff and consultants and eligible family members, in order to secure essential medical care which cannot be secured locally as a result of inadequate medical facilities (and which must be treated before the next leave outside the duty station);

ii. For local staff and eligible family members, in situations of great emergency when a life-threatening situation is present, or in cases of service-incurred illness or accident.

In addition, evacuation can be arranged in extreme emergencies through SOS Assistance (a private company which provides 24 hour world-wide emergency evacuation). However, this is very expensive and not covered by UN insurance. It can be used in life threatening situations, and where an evacuation by normal means cannot be organized in view of the gravity of the illness or injury. A password is needed before SOS Assistance takes action for UNHCR - heads of offices should ensure they obtain this password from the Division of Human Resource Management. The password should be known by the Head of Office and the Deputy Head of Office.

20. The medical evacuation plan should be written with close reference to the relevant IOM/FOMs, and the advice of the UNHCR programme health coordinator should be sought, as well as that of any medical NGOs. When an evacuation may be necessary, a UN Examining Physician should assist in decisions as to the degree of urgency and facilities required.

Movement Control Plan

21. A movement control plan should be prepared when there is a need to track the movement of vehicles, and should provide a means to determine the current location of the vehicles and passengers and whether they are overdue from a trip. The plan usually consists of a fixed schedule of radio calls to the vehicle from the base station (e.g. every 30 or 60 minutes) in order to report the current location of the vehicle to the base station. This information should be updated on a white-board following each radio-call. The driver of every vehicle should confirm safe arrival at the end of the trip.

Routine Radio Checks

22. Routine radio checks should be instituted when the current location and welfare of staff-members needs to be known. Radio calls from the base station can be made on a fixed schedule or randomly.


23. Keys to effective security are:

i. First and foremost, personal awareness on the individual level;

ii. Appropriate behaviour to diminish the risk of security incidents;

iii. Appropriate response by the individual to security incidents.

Personal Security

24. For personal security, bear in mind the following:

Be aware of and alert to your surroundings;

Observe the behaviour of other people living in the area. Local people will probably know more about general security threats than you do;

Don't travel alone;

Don't carry large amounts of money;

Don't travel after dark if it can be avoided. Most security incidents occur after dark;

When leaving base, make sure someone knows where you are going and when you are expected back;

Lock vehicle doors and keep the windows rolled up when travelling;

Park vehicles to allow for fast exit;

Don't take photographs around military personnel or military installations;

Have cash, documents, and an emergency bag packed and ready to go at all times;

Always be polite: be aware that your behaviour to local officials, police or military can rebound negatively on other staff.

Residential Security

25. Several steps can be taken to improve residential security:

Make sure there are good solid doors. Never have glass doors on the exterior;

Install a peep hole, a safety chain and a security bar;

Keep the entrance door locked at all times, even when at home;

Install bars and grills, at least on the ground floor;

All windows should have locks;

Draw curtains at night;

Install outside lighting;

Have emergency power sources, candles and torches;

Keep a watchdog or other animals like goats, geese or peacocks;

Install a telephone or walkie-talkie.

Depending on the circumstances and if authorized by UNSECOORD from the UN system, UNHCR can cover the costs of some of the improvements listed.

Base Security

26. Base security should be improved by:

Hiring guards:

The host country authorities sometimes provide guards. Guards hired by UNHCR are not permitted to carry lethal weapons while on duty. Guards should be trained and briefed, and should wear a uniform or some identifying garment;

Ensuring there are lights:

Lights should be powerful and should light up an area outside the perimeter fence, providing a barrier of illumination in which intruders can be detected.

Installing fences and controlling access:

Double fences with razor wires form an effective barrier. There should be more than one entrance/exit. Sensitive locations (for example, the accommodation area, communications room, generators and fuel store) may need to be surrounded by a barrier of sandbags. Procedures to control access to the compound need to be established. The fenced compound should be self-contained and equipment (e.g. spare tires, jacks, fire extinguisher, first aid kits, generators, water pumps), should be checked and maintained on a routine basis.

Field Security

27. Several steps should be taken by relevant staff and heads of office to improve field security:

Develop a movement control plan (see above);

When planning to travel, check the latest security situation with the DO, others who have been there, host country officials other UN agencies, NGOs, traders;

Get all required authorizations, from the DO and host country authorities;

Ensure that all staff know what to do in case of accident or breakdown - simple procedures should be established;

Ensure that vehicles are properly equipped with extra food and water, sleeping bags, mosquito nets, tents, water filters, fuel, tow rope, jumper cables, spare tire, tire jack, flashlight, batteries, first aid kit, travel documents, radio, vehicle insurance papers, shovel and maps;

Ensure that vehicles are in good mechanical condition and are checked regularly. Certain items, such as brakes, tire wear, fluid levels, lights, installed radios, should always be checked prior to every field trip;

Ensure that all staff know what to do at checkpoints - establish procedures for staff to follow. It is against UN policy to allow anyone carrying arms in UN vehicles.

Cash Security

28. Ideally staff members should not carry large sums of money in cash. If there is a functioning banking system in the area, then this should be used to the maximum extent possible.

29. If it is necessary to transport cash then arrangements should be made with the host country authorities for protection of the funds. Cash in large amounts should be kept on hand for the shortest possible time, and should either be deposited in a bank or be disbursed quickly to pay salaries or meet other legitimate expenditure. Advance payments could be considered to reduce amounts of cash being stored (provided financial rules are adhered to).

30. Measures which can contribute to security while transporting cash include making use of:

i. Professional couriers;

ii. Armoured vehicles;

iii. Armed guards;

iv. Deception. There should be no regularity in the arrangements: The timing, route, and other details should change every time;

v. Discretion.

The number of people knowing about the movement of cash, the identity of persons carrying cash, their routes and timetables, should be kept to the barest minimum necessary.

Crowd Control and Security

31. If crowds cannot be avoided:

Ensure that clear information is provided to the crowd, so that they know what is going on and what to expect;

Work with representatives of the people to organize the crowd into small groups and get them to sit down;

Do not engage in unruly group discussions;

When discussing grievances, meet with a small number of representatives of the crowd, never with the mass meeting;

Provide sanitary facilities, water, shade and shelter;

For crowd control, use monitors from among the people themselves;

If confronted by a crowd when in a vehicle, do not get out. Check that the doors are locked and drive away carefully;

Maintain poise and dignity if confronted by a hostile crowd, do not show anger.

Mine Awareness

32. In countries with high risk of mines, all offices should ensure there is appropriate training and reference materials (see references) -the information contained here is not sufficient, but provides only broad guidance.

33. It is extremely difficult to spot a mined area, so the first priority is to ensure you have up to date information about possible mined areas from local residents and de-mining organizations. Travel with a map marked with this information and update it by checking with local residents.

34. Be aware of the following:

Signs: learn which signs indicate known mined areas (whether local signs, UN or other signs);

No-go areas: avoid areas which are avoided by the local population;

Visible mines or indicators: some mines are visible. There may also be evidence of mine packaging;

Disruption in the local environment: for example disturbed soil if recently laid, and depressions in the ground in an old mine field;

Trip wires;

Mine damage (e.g. dead animals) which could indicate the presence of other mines.

35. When driving, the following precautions should betaken:

Wherever possible stay on hard surfaced roads.

Always follow in the fresh tracks of another vehicle, at least 50 m behind the vehicle in front.

Flak jackets can be used as a seat cushion and as a foot protection.

Wear the seat-belts, and keep windows rolled down and doors unlocked.

36. If you encounter a mine:

Keep away, do not touch it;

Do not try to detonate it by throwing stones at it;

Stop the vehicle immediately;

Stay in the vehicle, even if it is damaged and call for assistance.

37. If you have to leave the vehicle:

Notify your location by radio;

Do not move the steering wheel;

Put on any protective gear available;

Climb over the seats and leave the vehicle by the rear, walk back along the vehicle tracks. Never walk around the vehicle;

Leave at least a 20 m gap between people;

Close the road to other traffic.

38. When travelling on foot:

Never walk through overgrown areas: stick to well used paths.

39. If there is a mine incident:

Do not immediately run to the casualty. Stop and assess the situation first. There may be other antipersonnel mines in the vicinity, and administering first aid to one victim could result in another victim;

Only one person should go to the casualty, walking in his exact footprints, to apply first aid;

Do not attempt to move the casualty unless absolutely necessary, call for mine-clearing and medical assistance.

40. Within the UN system, mine clearance and related issues are primarily the responsibility of DPKO. Chapter 19 on voluntary repatriation contains some information about programme aspects of mines.

Protection Equipment:

41. Typical equipment that has been used by UNHCR includes:

i. Bullet proof vests for protection against most bullets;

ii. Flak jackets for protection against shrapnel;

iii. Helmets for protection against shrapnel;

iv. Ballistic blankets fitted in vehicles, for protection against hand grenades and antipersonnel mines;

v. Armoured cars;

vi. Shatter resistant windows;

vii. Military combat rations for concentration points;

viii. Metal detectors for body searches.

42. These items can be ordered through the Supply and Transport Section in co-ordination with the relevant Bureau and Field Safety Section.

Security Management

43. Heads of offices, whether at field or branch level should take action to ensure the security and safety of staff members. In addition to the responsibilities implicit in the above sections, appropriate security management measures also include:

Ensuring both you and your staff have access to relevant, accurate and up-to-date information;

Providing systematic briefings with all staff on the security situation and on the security plan itself. Bear in mind that some staff, particularly national staff, may provide valuable input into these briefings because of their local knowledge;

Encouraging staff awareness: a key to effective security is personal awareness and good individual response to security situations;

Providing training to all staff on hazards specific to the duty station;

Ensuring the availability of materials on staff stress management and security in the duty station (see key references);

Reporting security related incidents to Headquarters (Field Safety Section);

Ensuring there is good communication with other organizations and NGOs about the security situation;

Ensuring the office has a medical evacuation plan. In addition, the country representative should ensure he or she (and their deputy) has the SOS Assistance password in the case of extreme medical emergency.

Key References

Checklist for the Emergency Administrator, UNHCR, Geneva, 1998.

IOM/26/95-FOM26/95, Medical Evacuation in Extreme Emergencies - SOS Assistance, UNHCR, Geneva, 1995.

IOM/104/94-FOM/107/94, New Medical Evacuation Scheme, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994.

Land Mine Safety Handbook, CARE, Atlanta, 1997.

Security Awareness Handbook, UNHCR, Geneva, 1995.

Security Guidelines for Women, United Nations, New York, 1995.

United Nations Field Security Handbook, United Nations, New York, 1995.