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Coordinating humanitarian action | Providing assistance and protection |
International protection and assistance to refugees

Since it first coordinated humanitarian relief operations in Europe following the devastation and massive displacement of people in the Second World War, the United Nations has been relied on by the international community to respond to natural and man-made disasters that are beyond the capacity of national authorities alone. Today, the Organization is a major provider of emergency relief and longer-term assistance, a catalyst for action by governments and relief agencies, and an advocate on behalf of people struck by emergencies.

In the last decade, civil wars have become a central cause of emergency situations. In 1999 alone, millions were uprooted from their homes by war - 1.2 million in Angola, 850,000 in Kosovo, 750,000 in Ethiopia and Eritrea, 550,000 in East Timor, 200,000 in Chechnya and countless more in other conflicts around the world.

Natural disasters - floods, droughts, storms and earthquakes - killed more than 50,000 people and caused economic losses exceeding $90 billion in 1998, the latest year for which information is available. The figure for that year alone exceeds the disaster costs for the entire 1980s. More than 90 per cent of all disaster victims live in developing countries - a striking indicator of the degree to which poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation exacerbate suffering and destruction.

Confronted with renewed conflict and the escalating human and financial costs of natural disasters, the United Nations has been engaged on two fronts. On one hand it has sought to bring immediate relief to the victims, primarily through its operational agencies; on the other hand, it has sought more effective strategies to prevent emergencies from arising in the first place.

When disaster strikes, the United Nations and its agencies rush to deliver humanitarian assistance. In 2000 alone, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched 16 inter-agency appeals that raised more than $1.4 billion to assist 35 million people in 16 countries and regions. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been providing international protection and assistance to over 22 million people annually - refugees as well as a growing number of internally displaced persons. The World Food Programme has regularly delivered one third of the world's emergency food assistance, saving millions of lives.

Disaster prevention seeks to reduce the vulnerability of societies to disaster, and to address their man-made causes. Early warning is especially important for short-term prevention, and United Nations agencies are increasing their capacity in this area: the Food and Agriculture Organization monitors impending famines, while the World Meteorological Organization carries out tropical cyclone forecasting and drought monitoring. Preparedness is equally vital, and the United Nations Development Programme assists disaster-prone countries in developing contingency planning and other preparedness measures.

Coordinating humanitarian action

The past decade has seen an upsurge in the number and intensity of civil wars. These have caused large-scale humanitarian crises- with extensive loss of life, massive displacements of people, and widespread damage to societies- in complicated political and military environments. To address these "complex emergencies", the United Nations has upgraded its capacity to respond quickly and effectively. The General Assembly in 1991 established the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to coordinate the international response to humanitarian crises. The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator is the Organization's focal point for this endeavour, acting as the system's principal policy adviser, coordinator and advocate on issues pertaining to humanitarian emergencies. The Emergency Relief Coordinator heads the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which coordinates United Nations assistance in humanitarian crises that go beyond the capacity and mandate of any single agency.

Many actors - governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), United Nations agencies - seek to respond simultaneously to complex emergencies. OCHA works with them to ensure that there is a coherent framework within which everyone can contribute promptly and effectively to the overall effort.

When an emergency strikes, OCHA coordinates the international response. It consults with the United Nations Country Team in the country concerned and undertakes inter-agency consultations at Headquarters to reach agreement on the priorities for action. OCHA then provides support for the coordination of activities in the affected country.

The Office coordinates field missions by United Nations agencies to assess needs; helps to mobilize resources by launching consolidated inter-agency appeals; organizes donor meetings and follow-up arrangements; monitors the status of contributions in response to the appeals; and issues situation reports to keep donors and others updated on developments. On average, 27 inter-agency appeals are launched each year: they have raised over $12 billion for emergencies since 1992.

OCHA works with its partners in the humanitarian community to build a consensus around policies and to identify specific humanitarian issues arising from operational experience in the field. It tries to ensure that major humanitarian issues are addressed, including those that fall between the mandates of humanitarian organizations - such as the plight of internally displaced persons. By advocating on humanitarian issues, OCHA gives voice to the silent victims of crises and ensures that the views and concerns of the humanitarian community are reflected in overall efforts towards recovery and peace-building. OCHA promotes greater respect for humanitarian norms and principles, and draws attention to specific issues, such as the access to affected populations, the humanitarian impact of sanctions, anti-personnel landmines and the unchecked proliferation of small arms.

OCHA's Central Emergency Revolving Fund is a cash-flow mechanism facilitating an immediate response to an emergency. It is used to help humanitarian agencies with cash-flow problems before donor contributions are available. The borrowing agency must reimburse the amount loaned within one year. Since 1992, the Fund has been used more than 50 times, with a total of over $127 million disbursed. OCHA manages ReliefWeb, the world's foremost humanitarian web site, which provides the latest information on emergencies around the world (see

Providing assistance and protection

Four United Nations entities -- UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and UNDP -- have primary roles in protection and providing assistance in humanitarian crises.

Children and women constitute the majority of refugees and displaced persons. In acute emergencies, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) works alongside other relief agencies to help re-establish basic services such as water and sanitation, set up schools, and provide immunization services, medicines and other supplies to uprooted populations.

UNICEF also consistently urges governments and warring parties to act more effectively to protect children. Its programmes in conflict zones have included the negotiation of ceasefires to facilitate the provision of services such as child immunization. To this end, UNICEF has pioneered the concept of "children as zones of peace" and created "days of tranquillity" and "corridors of peace" in war-affected regions. Special programmes assist traumatized children and help to reunite unaccompanied children with parents or extended families. In 1999, UNICEF provided humanitarian assistance in 39 countries.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the agency responsible for coordinating activities for natural disaster mitigation, prevention and preparedness. When emergencies occur, UNDP Resident Coordinators coordinate relief and rehabilitation efforts at the national level. Often governments call on UNDP to help design rehabilitation programmes and to direct donor aid.

To ensure that relief programmes pave the way for development, UNDP and humanitarian agencies work together to integrate a concern for long-term development in their relief operations. UNDP supports programmes for the demobilization of former combatants, comprehensive mine action, the return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the restoration of the institutions of governance.

To ensure that the resources provided will have the greatest possible impact, each project is carried out in consultation with local and national government officials. This community-based approach has helped provide urgent but lasting relief for hundreds of thousands of victims of war or civil upheaval. Today, many conflict-scarred communities have improved their living standards thanks to training programmes, credit schemes and infrastructure projects.

On the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), see Protection and assistance to refugees, below.

In emergencies, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides fast, efficient, self-sustaining relief to millions of people who are victims of natural or man-made disasters, including refugees and the internally displaced. Such crises consume most of WFP's resources. A decade ago, two out of three tons of the food aid provided by WFP was used to help people become self-reliant. Today, the picture is reversed, with 80 per cent of WFP resources going to victims of man-made disaster.

In 1999, WFP assisted 29 million internally displaced people, refugees and returnees, and 41 million victims of natural disaster. The agency is responsible for mobilizing food and funds for transport for all large-scale refugee-feeding operations managed by UNHCR. WFP is increasingly involved in projects using food aid to support demobilization of ex-combatants and demining of war zones. After war or disaster strikes, WFP moves in with reconstruction and rehabilitation projects aimed at repairing the damaged infrastructure.

The majority of those affected by disasters live in rural areas. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the lead agency in providing early warning of impending food crises and assessing food supply problems throughout the world. FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System provides regular and updated information on the global food situation. It also carries out assessments of the food situation in food-insecure countries due to man-made or natural disasters.

Based on assessments made in collaboration with WFP, emergency operations for food aid are prepared and jointly approved by FAO and WFP. FAO provides agricultural inputs for rehabilitating food production and gives technical advice in agricultural emergencies. Its Special Relief Operations Service provides considerable support to disaster-stricken farmers.

The assistance programmes of the World Health Organization (WHO) focus on assessing the health needs of those affected by emergencies and disaster, providing health information and assisting in coordination and planning. WHO carries out emergency programmes in areas such as nutritional and epidemiological surveillance, control of epidemics (including HIV/AIDS), immunizations, management of essential drugs and medical supplies, reproductive health and mental health. WHO makes special efforts to eradicate polio and to control malaria in countries affected by emergencies.

International protection and assistance to refugees

Throughout 1999, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided international protection and assistance to some 22 million people who had fled war or persecution. Of these, some 17 million were refugees and returnees, and some 4.6 million were internally displaced persons. Internal conflicts have become the main cause of refugee crises.

UNHCR has been the lead humanitarian agency during the conflicts in the Balkans, which produced the largest refugee flows in Europe since the Second World War. It was the lead agency in addressing the massive exoduses out of Kosovo and East Timor in 1999. It has also been assisting refugees, displaced people and returnees in Africa's Great Lakes region and other parts of the continent, and in south-west Asia.

Refugees are defined as those who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and who cannot or do not want to return.

The legal status of refugees is defined in two international treaties, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which spell out their rights and obligations. As of December 2000, 137 states were parties to one or both treaties. UNHCR's most important function is international protection - trying to ensure respect for refugees' basic human rights, including their ability to seek asylum, and ensure that no one is returned involuntarily to a country where he or she has reason to fear persecution. Other types of assistance include:

  • help during major emergencies involving the movement of large numbers of refugees;
  • regular programmes in such fields as education, health and shelter;
  • assistance to promote the self-sufficiency of refugees and their integration in host countries;
  • voluntary repatriation;
  • resettlement in third countries for refugees who cannot return to their homes and who face protection problems in the country where they first sought asylum.
Although UNHCR's mandate is to protect and assist refugees, it has been called upon more and more to come to the aid of a wider range of people living in refugee-like situations. They include people displaced within their own countries; former refugees who may need UNHCR monitoring and assistance once they have returned home; stateless people; and people who receive temporary protection outside their home countries, but who do not receive the full legal status of refugees. Today, refugees comprise just over half of the people of concern to UNHCR.

Asylum seekers are persons who have left their countries of origin and have applied for recognition as refugees in other countries, and whose applications are still pending. UNHCR is currently assisting 1.2 million people in this category. The largest groups of asylum seekers are living in industrialized countries. Most refugees want to return home as soon as circumstances permit, and UNHCR is currently assisting 2.6 million returnees. One of the most successful repatriation operations was the return of over 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique following a peaceful settlement of the civil war in 1993. In 1999, the largest repatriation movements assisted by UNHCR were to Kosovo (751,400), Afghanistan (252,700), East Timor (127,500) and Liberia (94,900).

However, the sudden return of large numbers of people can quickly overwhelm fragile economic and social infrastructures. To ensure that returnees can rebuild their lives after they go back home, UNHCR works with a range of organizations to facilitate reintegration. This requires emergency assistance for those in need, development programmes for the areas that have been devastated and job-creation schemes.

The links between peace, stability, security, respect for human rights and sustainable development are increasingly seen as crucial in the search for durable solutions to the refugee problem.

Palestine refugees: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been providing education, health, relief and social services to Palestine refugees since 1950. The General Assembly created UNRWA to provide emergency relief to some 750,000 Palestine refugees who had lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict (see Chapter 2, page 95). By 2000, UNRWA was providing essential services to more than 3.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. UNRWA's humanitarian role has been reinforced by recurrent conflicts in the Middle East, such as the civil war in Lebanon and the Palestinian uprising (intifada).

Education is UNRWA's largest area of activity, accounting for half of its regular budget and two-thirds of its staff. Its 647 elementary and junior secondary schools accommodated more than 468,000 pupils in the 1999/2000 school year, while the eight UNRWA vocational training centres had over 4,600 trainees.

The Agency's network of 122 health centres handled 7.1 million patient visits in 1999. Environmental health services were provided to the 1.2 million refugees living in 59 refugee camps.

Some 205,000 people received special hardship assistance in 1999, which sought to ensure minimum standards of nutrition and shelter and to promote self-reliance through poverty-alleviation programmes. The income-generation programme in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has provided more than 27,000 loans worth $41 million to small businesses and micro-enterprises, achieving a repayment rate approaching 100 per cent in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA cooperates closely with the Palestinian Authority. After the 1993 accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (see Chapter 2, page 98), UNRWA started its Peace Implementation Programme to ensure that the benefits of the peace process were realized at the local level. The Programme has helped to upgrade infrastructure, create employment and improve socio-economic conditions in refugee communities throughout its area of operations. By the end of 1999, the Programme had received more than $181 million in contributions and pledges. The European Gaza Hospital, an initiative of the European Union and UNRWA, opened in 2000.

The international community considers UNRWA a stabilizing factor in the Middle East. The refugees themselves look upon UNRWA's programmes as a symbol of the international community's commitment to a solution of the Palestine refugee issue.

Updated 22 April 2004
Source: Basic Facts About the UN, p. 245-256; Sales No. E.00.I.21
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