UNHCR: Bureaucracy, Nurse, and Scapegoat

Despite the experiences of Somalia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the United Nations seems reluctant to set up a High Commissioner for War Victims, leaving its refugees body to insist on helping only those outside the country or let the UN fudge the terms of its mandate, with some unhappy results. Report by Peter Hulm, Managing Editor of CROSSLINES.
John Telford remembers the mountains of south-eastern Turkey in early 1991, when 150,000 Kurdish refugees fled across the border from northern Iraq. With cholera an everpresent threat, the immediate need was for thousands of shovels to bury wastes. "When the allied military, a major NGO and the United Nations simultaneously offered to procure the tools, the [coordination] committee didn't hesitate to order them from all three," recalls the former UNHCR worker. "And soon, the 30,000 tools began arriving. Rushed off the helicopters, even ahead of food and blankets, bundle after bundle of white wooden handles began piling up in the sunshine along the landing zone. It took a day or two, as chopper after chopper disgorged the bundles of wooden manna, before anyone realized that none of the handles had any heads -- no shovels, no picks, only shiny wooden handles" Kilian Kleinschmidt, a UNHCR worker in the Kenyan border town of El Wak during the Somali crisis, had to deal with six clans and 21 sub-clans among 15-20,000 refugee Somalis. Some of the refugees would not visit a child feeding centre in the camp because Medecins sans Frontieres inadvertently located it in the 'neighbourhood' of a rival clan.

James C. Hathaway of the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada, speaks of an "emerging politics of non-entre" by which countries -- usually rich and powerful -- exercise control over refugee movements without responsibility for their welfare. He denounces as "pernicious" what he terms "the new generation of tools of isolation, including processing of Haitian asylum-seekers at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba; the creation of a Kurdish 'safe haven' within Iraq, coupled with an all-too-temporary 'Operation Comfort'; or the legal fiction of an 'international zone' at French airports in which refugees are denied legal rights."

These three examples taken from one issue of UNHCR's own Refugees magazine point up the crisis facing an agency that was never meant to be directly operational. Established in the wake of World War II with the tasks of "facilitating the coordination of the efforts of private organizations who deal with the welfare of refugees" and of "searching for lasting solutions" to refugee problems, UNHCR today faces a crisis both of available management capacity and of inherent political weakness: issues of governance, in the jargon of the trade.

Sadako Ogata, High Commissioner for Refugees since February 1991, gets high marks for personal effectiveness, determination to reform UNHCR and political courage, after a series of lacklustre holders of the post. Under her leadership, the organization set up a preparedness unit in February 1992 with some 20 people and another 40 staff members kept on standby. UNHCR has an agreement enabling it to call on the Swedish army's civil defence branch at short notice. It has topped 12 months of consultation with a meeting with NGOs from 83 countries in Oslo on 6 June that approved 134 recommendations to reform the often sticky relations between UNHCR and non-governmental organizations.

All this is designed to solve the problems highlighted in UNHCR's review of emergency operations in Sudan (1985) and Iraq (1991): lack of early warning and preparedness systems, absence of planning in initial stages, lack of clear lines of authority and delegation of responsibility. John Telford, then with the Emergency Preparedness and Response Section, wrote: "The most deadly killer in any humanitarian emergency is not dehydration, measles, malnutrition or the weather. It is bad management."

The High Commissioner offered in Oslo to bring NGOs into UNHCR's operational and programme discussions (it works with some 300 -- 104 of them in Africa). "NGOs do not always understand our constraints," officials have said. "NGOs delays in complying with agreed reporting requirements are the cause of many of our difficulties."

They point to the difficulties caused by wildcat NGOs. "Some NGOs with no preparation evacuated children and sick people from the territory of ex-Yugoslavia," the latest edition of Refugees reported. "Some of these children reached foreign countries without official documents or identification. Today, relocating their families has become a nightmare for UNHCR, ICRC and others who are left to clean up the mess."

Delmar Blasco, Executive Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), sums up the NGO view: "To take a decision in UNHCR is always a difficult and painful exercise. The officials fear their reactions of their boss or worry about their career. The pile of forms that have to be filled in is also overwhelming. And this is serious in a crisis situation in which the lives of refugees are at stake."

The Tanzanian end of the Rwanda operation is hailed within the UN body as "testimony to what can be done when UNHCR and its partners work together". A quarter of a million Rwandans fled to the Ngara region of Tanzania in one day: 28 April, the biggest and fastest refugee movement UNHCR had witnessed. UNHCR and NGOs were already there, working together on a project for Burundi refugees. "Because of this, we gained a lot of time," says Jacques Franquin, coordinator of UNHCR activities in Ngara. "In similar situations, the UNHCR and NGO teams are not really operational until two or three weeks after arriving. In this case, we could respond from the first day on."

For a few days Benaco hill became the world's biggest refugee camp, until the exodus west from Rwanda to Goma in Zaire. UNHCR was able to pick the most convenient spot to shelter its refugees in Tanzania: at the foot of the site is an artificial lake providing a million litres of water a day. Each of the 15 NGOs at Benaco has been given a well-defined role. The European Community, financing road building in the Ngara region, allowed the Italian construction company to divert its engineering equipment to Benaco. Maureen Connelly, head of the UNHCR Emergency Unit in Tanzania until July, says: "Without the help of this construction company, we could never have organized the Benaco site so quickly. We should always be able to count on such a team and on engineering material for all large-scale emergency operations like this."

Why UNHCR can't goes to the heart of its problems. In trying to get fast action out of its donor community, UNHCR officials run the same kind of gauntlet with national and international bureaucracies that NGOs complain of in their dealings with the refugee agency. Preparedness stockpiling is limited to an emergency reserve to help 50,000 people with items that have a shelf-life of more than a year. Governments, officials say, are often reluctant to listen to warnings of, let alone plan for, refugee influxes: "It's like a patient on his deathbed. He'll refuse to write a will for fear that it will make him die sooner."

UNHCR's own reviews have highlighted the inadequacy of its capabilities. The Kurdish review concluded: "UNHCR's capacity to act quickly and decisively was limited by the absence of structures, systems and procedures designed to meet the specific needs of an emergency." The Kenya-Somalia operation, the first to use the Swedish backup service and the whole of the UNHCR "fire brigade" service, took almost seven months to get approval. UNHCR's Geneva-based technical and programme staff realized only in early 1992 the exceptionally high mortality rates among Bhutanese refugees flooding into Nepal during the past 12 months, and Nepal was put on the emergency agenda in mid-April. "Unfortunately, by the time UNHCR's senior epidemiologist was sent to the field, it was early June and between 1,200 and 1,500 preventable deaths had occurred," reported the agency's Sylvie Girard.

Since those days, UNHCR's reforms have given it more credibility with the international community, but there are major obstacles preventing it from going the whole route, and many of these are political. UNHCR had an office on the eastern Zaire border with Rwanda for several months before the emergency, but it was staffed by only one person. By the end of August it was coordinating more than 50 NGOs in Goma, assisting some 850,000 refugees, admitting a serious problem of violence but maintaining the polite fiction that Zaire authorities can handle security in refugee camps. "Within its mandate and resource limitations, UNHCR is prepared to help the Government of Zaire to separate the military from the civilians. However, [...] it is clear that all security problems will not be solved with the transfer of the military to other locations," the Special Unit for Rwanda and Burundi told a 8-10 September Symposium on Refugees organized in Addis Ababa.

The Reality of Aid 1994, an independent NGO study produced by ICVA, EUROSTEP and ActionAid, notes: "NGOs report that in Somaliland UNHCR is virtually doing the job of a development agency both for repatriated refugees and local communities." But to justify its actions, UNHCR can point only to the 1951 Convention, which sees UNHCR as mainly funding assistance, supervising programmes, controlling finance and providing technical advice.

It has gained some flexibility in recent years. Since February 1991, it has been able to spend $6 million from its emergency fund on any particular urgent situation ($4 million has gone on the Rwanda-Burundi emergency). But the South Kivu region of Zaire, with 120,000 Burundis and 164,000 Rwandans, saw the numbers rise to 450,000 between 21 August and the end of the month, an increase of 170,000 in ten days. As pointed out by Marx and his disciples who produced one million refugees through the Russian revolution (one of the original reasons for creating a High Commissioner for Refugees), quantity has its own quality.

What would it take to ensure UNHCR regularly maintained the response capacity it has shown in Tanzania? Some NGOs give credit to overestimation of the refugee numbers expected as well as to contingency planning. And the Tanzanian operation has fallen down in coping with issues that go beyond the immediate material emergency: in mid-July UNHCR had one protection officer for 240,000 refugees in three camps with new arrivals reaching 1,000 daily.

Many of the other answers do not seem to lie in the hands of the High Commissioner.

Of the three main UNHCR concerns in the region recorded at the end of August only one relates to assistance. "Safety and dignity inside Rwanda" for the return of refugees and prevention of further flights from Rwanda, plus better security of refugees and aid workers in neighbouring countries, will determine how quickly the crisis cools off. But UNHCR is not equipped to play the political role necessary to end such emergencies.

Franois Fouinat, once Geneva coordinator for the UNHCR operation in ex-Yugoslavia, says firmly: "Definitely, there are situations which are beyond the capacity of humanitarian organizations, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina we may be close to reaching that point. This kind of operation brings the humanitarian world to its limits." Operations chief Tony Land in Zagreb adds: "We simply don't have the expertise to run a country of 4.5 million people if it insists on systematically trying to destroy itself."

When Ogata tried to assert humanitarian policy in ex-Yugoslavia by suspending relief supplies until receiving guarantees of safe conduct, she was overruled by the Secretary-General in a highly public show of indignation over her presumption.

With the military becoming more involved in humanitarian action, UNHCR is bound to seem more and more the victim of political manoeuvring. Somalia's crisis, the Irish NGO Trocaire has pointed out, "highlighted the clear link between the emergency relief and military intervention agendas." Trocaire warns: "It may become increasingly difficult to draw a line between Ireland's aid programme, traditionally free of significant geopolitical considerations, and Ireland's participation in the security arrangements for a new world order."

With so many industrial (and militaristic) nations now even more sensitive than Ireland about changes in the power structure of developing countries, NGOs are understandably concerned. Human need may [...] move down the order of priorities when decisions are being made about relief in conflict situations," they say. Which leaves UNHCR once again in the unenviable position of responsibility without a hope of control.

This article was first published in the October special Rwanda issue of CROSSLINES Global Report, an independent newsletter of reporting on humanitarian, development and environmental issues.

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