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Humanitarian Assistance and Assistance to Refugees

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) | Operational Agencies | Assistance to Refugees

Since its 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, including food, shelter, medical supplies and logistical support, primarily through its operational agencies, and a catalyst for action by Governments and other relief agencies.

During the 1990s, civil conflicts have become a central cause of emergency situations. By 1997, an estimated 50 million people had been forced to flee their homes -- 1 out of every 120 people on earth. In 1997 alone, the United Nations launched 10 new consolidated inter-agency appeals which raised more than $800 million to assist 15 million people in some 15 countries. In recent years, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has provided international protection and assistance to over 20 million people annually -- refugees as well as a growing number of displaced people. The World Food Programme has regularly delivered two thirds of the world's emergency food assistance, saving millions of lives.

Providing immediate assistance to victims of an emergency is the first, essential step. But humanitarian action by the United Nations systems goes beyond relief, to involve long-term rehabilitation and development. In 1997, natural disasters such as storms, floods, landslides and earthquakes killed some 13,000 people and caused $30 billion in economic losses. Some 90 per cent of this total occurred in developing countries, a striking indicator of the degree to which poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation magnify the scale of suffering and destruction.

A central component of United Nations policy is to ensure that emergency relief contributes to recovery and longer-term development in the affected area. Economic and social development remains the best protection against disaster -- whether natural or, as is increasingly the case, man-made.

The United Nations also assists countries in incorporating disaster prevention and preparedness into their overall development plans. In an effort to raise awareness of the need for prevention and preparedness, the General Assembly declared the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The Decade's objective is to reduce loss of life, economic damage and social disruption caused by natural disasters. Major themes include assessing the risk of and vulnerability to such hazard; vulnerability and risk assessment; political commitments; and shared knowledge and technology transfer.

The World Conference on Disaster Reduction (Yokohama, Japan, 1994) helped to develop new strategies to reduce the effects of disasters. At the Decade's end in 1999, the international community will evaluate its achievements and map a comprehensive strategy for the next century.


The mandate of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is to strengthen coordination among the United Nations bodies that provide assistance in response to emergencies.

The Office works to secure agreement among agencies of the United Nations system on the division of responsibilities such as the establishment of coordination mechanisms, the mounting of need-assessment missions, the preparation of consolidated appeals and resource mobilization.

The core functions of the Emergency Relief Coordinator are:


Four United Nations entities -- UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP -- have primary roles in the delivery of relief assistance. During the past decade, war and civil strife have left an estimated 1 million children orphaned or separated from their parents. A further 12 million children have been made homeless and 10 million have been severely traumatized. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has sought to meet their needs by supplying food, safe water, medicine and shelter. UNICEF also aims to assist development by supporting activities such as immunization and education (through "school-in-a-box" kits) in refugee camps. Special programmes assits traumatized children and help unaccompanied children to reunite with parents or extended families. In 1997, UNICEF provided emergency assistance to 26 countries affected by conflict.

To deliver humanitarian relief to children during armed conflict, UNICEF has pioneered the concept of "children as zones of peace" and created "days of tranquility" and "corridors of peace" in Africa, Asia, Europe and Central America.

UNICEF has drawn world attention to the plight of children in war. Since 1987, some 2 million children have been killed, 6 million have been seriously injured or disabled, and thousands have fought in armed conflicts. The Secretary-General appointed in 1997 a Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict to strengthen the protection of children in conflict situations.

There are millions of landmines buried in 70 countries around the world, waiting to maim and kill 8,000 to 10,000 children every year. UNICEF supports the campaign for a total ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. In 1997, the Ottawa Conference was held, at which the Convention on anti-personnel mines was signed by 123 countries. UNICEF and other members of the United Nations system are promoting ratification of the Convention and supporting mine-awareness programmes.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the agency responsible for operational activities for natural disaster mitigation, prevention and preparedness. When emergencies and natural disasters occur, UNDP Resident Representatives coordinate relief and rehabilitation efforts at the national level. On many occasions, Governments call on UNDP to help design rehabilitation programmes and to direct donor aid.

UNDP helps to ensure that recovery activities are integrated with relief operations. Humanitarian aid and development support are thus linked, bringing the earliest possible resumption of sustainable development to a troubled area. UNDP rehabilitation projects aim to alleviate poverty, often the root cause of civil strife. To ensure that the resources provided will have the greatest possibl impact, each project is carried out in consultation with local and national goverment 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 Assistance to Refugees, below.

The World Food Programme (WFP) provides relief to millions of people who are the victims of disasters. It is responsible for mobilizing food and funds for transport for all large-scale refugee-feeding operations managed by UNHCR.

Every day, WFP emergency response teams rush supplies to millions of the victims of war, ethnic conflict and political strife or flood drought and crop failure. Such crises, especially man-made disasters, 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, withn 70 per cent of WFP resources going to victims of conflict. In 1997, WFP assisted 14.9 million internally displaced, 4.2 million refugees and 10 million victims of earthquakes, floods and droughts.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is often called on to help farmers re-establish production following floods, outbreaks of livestock disease and similar emergencies. FAO's disaster relief assistance is coordinated by its Special Relief Operations Service.

The FAO Global Information and Early Warning System issues monthly reports on the world food situation. Special alerts identify, for Governments and relief organizations, countries threatened by food shortages.

Within the United Nations sytems, the World Health Organization (WHO) Division of Emergency and Humanitarian Action (EHA) coordinates the international response to emergencies in the area of health. WHO provides expert advice on epidemiological surveillance, control of communicable diseases, public-health information and health-emergency training.

EHA's emergency relief activities include the provision of emergency drugs and supplies, fielding of emergency-assessment missions and technical support. In emergency preparedness, EHA's main objective is to strengthen the capacity of Member States to reduce the adverse health consequences of emergencies. In 1997, WHO provided emergency and humanitarian relief in 31 countries.


Throughout 1997, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided international protection and assistance to more than 22 million people who had fled war or persecution, of whom some 12 million were refugees and some 4.4 million were internally displaced perons. Recently, internal conflicts have been the main cause of refugee crises. As of end-1997, UNHCR assisted 2.6 million refugees from Afghanistan, 631,000 from Iraq, 525,000 from Somalia, 517,000 from Burundi and 487,000 from Liberia.

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. In recent years, the distinction between refugees and displaced persons (those who have not crossed international borders) has become increasingly blurred, with the number of people displaced within their own country -- the "internally displaced" -- overtaking the number of refugees.

Palestine refugees: The General Assembly in December 1949 established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Since 1950, UNRWA has been providing education, health care, relief and social services to Palestine refugees, who now number more than 3.5 million persons. The Commissioner-General of UNRWA reports directly to the General Assembly.

Updated 21 May 1999
Source: Basic Facts About the UN, p. 27-28, 247-255; Sales No. E.98.I.20

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