60th Anniversary Q&A: Birthday boy looks back on his time with UNHCR

News Stories, 14 December 2010

© UNHCR/B. Thapa
Mads Madsen (right) taking to a refugee at one of the camps in eastern Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, December 14 (UNHCR) Mads Madsen will be a guest of honour at UNHCR's 60th birthday celebrations on Tuesday in Geneva. Like the refugee agency, the former Danish soldier turns 60 today. Madsen, who now works as a field safety adviser for UNHCR in the eastern Nepalese town of Damak, answered questions sent by UNHCR Assistant External Relations Officer Nini Gurung before flying to Geneva. Excerpts:

Tell us about your job

I advise managers and staff on security and safety. In practical terms, I keep them updated on the security situation and on the implications for the security and safety of our staff, property and programme activities . . . I assess the risks and suggest appropriate measures to ensure we can conduct our operations without staff coming into harm's way. I also provide security briefings and conduct training for staff on security and safety issues.

How did you come to join the UNHCR?

I was a military officer with a peacetime army preparing for an eventuality that might never happen. When I got an offer to go on a mission as a UN military observer in the former Yugoslavia in 1993 and 1994, I grasped the opportunity . . . It was a life-changing experience for me.

I got to work alongside humanitarian agencies like UNHCR who provided assistance and helped ease the suffering of refugees or the internally displaced. I had a lot of respect for these humanitarian workers and even envied them. The thought of becoming an aid worker began creeping into my mind and became stronger when I worked with several UN missions. Finally, I joined UNHCR in November 2004 and my first posting was in Jalalabad [in eastern Afghanistan].

Tell us a bit about your field postings

Jalalabad involved a major return programme for hundreds and thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan coming over the Khyber Pass and through the Torkham border crossing. The security situation was difficult and we had problems accessing quite a number of areas. There were constant risks of ambushes, abduction and IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. Staff movement was restricted and we were accommodated in a guesthouse.

I was in Jalalabad when riots took place in mid-May 2005. UN premises were attacked, guesthouses looted, trashed and set ablaze. All our international staff lost their possessions and had to be relocated to Kabul the same day. Because the relocation operation went well, it turned out to be a valuable lesson and it was also reassuring to know that the UN security system worked.

My second posting was in Liberia from July 2005 to the end of 2006 . . . There we had logistical challenges. Lack of proper roads and bridges, particularly during the rainy season, was a major challenge.

I have been in Nepal since January 2007 and plan to stay until my retirement in two years time. It has been a marvellous experience. There are security and safety challenges, but they are manageable. Operationally, it is always nice to be part of an operation where we see results. I feel very fortunate to see the refugees from Bhutan being resettled [in third countries in the West] after having lived in the camps for almost 20 years.

What are the major challenges you face in your work?

The main challenge is to balance the security and safety measures against the operational requirements. Obviously staff safety is paramount . . . Our job is not to restrict operational activities, unless there are absolutely no other ways out, but to support them.

Tell us about one or two of your more memorable experiences

There are many, but one small episode made a big impression on me. After the Jalalabad riots, we found a small Buddha image in a ruined guesthouse. It belonged to a female staff member and I still remember her joy when she realized the Buddha was intact. I think she took it as sign that nothing bad would happen to her.

In another more recent case, a female staff member found a bat in her room in the middle of the night. She was extremely scared and tried to alert her guard. However he had fallen asleep and so she called in to the radio room and requested assistance. In the meantime, the security guards in other residences nearby, listening to the commotion on the radio, rushed to her house. However, by the time they arrived the bat had found its own way out. The woman was very apologetic the following morning when she told me about the sequence of events. But we had a good laugh together and took it as a good exercise to test our security measures.

How important is security for a humanitarian organization like UNHCR?

Security is of paramount importance. It will never be possible to operate entirely free of risk. We need to manage risks in a very responsible way so that, in cases where staff are exposed to a high level of risk, all measures are taken to mitigate this to acceptable levels.

What are the most frequent mistakes that staff make?

Complacency: the attitude of "nothing ever happened and so it will not happen now." Very often common sense and small precautions are the key to avoid untoward incidents. The majority of incidents, including petty crimes, can easily be avoided. In many cases, staff do appreciate the logic and reasoning behind certain security precautions, but they omit to follow these because compliance implies a small amount of inconvenience. Failure to always carry a hand held radio is an example.

Has it become more dangerous to work in the field?

I believe so. First of all we no longer enjoy the same protection from our UN identity. More and more groups no longer perceive the UN as fully neutral and impartial, especially in countries where there is a UN mission. Many also perceive the UN as a western organization and hence view UN staff, facilities and assets as legitimate targets . . . But I also believe that security and safety for our staff has become a higher priority, and this is something we all welcome.

Are you looking forward to retirement? What do you plan to do next?

I am looking forward very much to my retirement. All my UNHCR postings until now have been non-family. I have been away from home for almost 14 years, although I visit my family occasionally. But they have supported me tremendously and I'm looking forward to being part of their day-to-day life again.

I will go back to Denmark. My wife and I have always been very active in our free time. We have a sailboat. I am also a keen fisherman and like to read. I have also started playing the saxophone during my spare time in Nepal. I am also a proud grandfather and that kind of starts a new chapter in life.

What will you miss most?

My colleagues and friends. I had the privilege to work with some of the most marvellous people one can imagine and some have become among my closest friends. I will also miss the entire international environment and going to new places . . . But we can always travel as tourists. It's a small world these days.

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UNHCR Turns 60Play video

UNHCR Turns 60

The UN refugee agency was founded on December 14, 1950, to help the forcibly displaced after World War Two. It has since assisted tens of millions.

60 Years in Photos

For more than six decades UNHCR has been helping the world's uprooted peoples.

The agency's first task was to help an estimated 1 million, mainly European civilians, who remained displaced in the aftermath of World War Two.

But during the 1950s the refugee crisis spread to Africa, later to Asia and then back to Europe, becoming a global problem.

At the end of 2009, on the eve of its 60th birthday, more than 26 million forcibly displaced people were receiving protection or assistance frpm UNHCR. During its lifetime, the agency has assisted more than 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives. More than half of the refugees the agency helps now live in urban areas.

In the past two decades, UNHCR has been helping increasing numbers of internally displaced people as part of an inter-agency approach. UNHCR has also been helping hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the crisis in Iraq, both inside and outside the country. UNHCR also has a mandate to help the world's stateless people, who number an estimated 12 million.

This is a pictorial history of those turbulent years, UNHCR's role and the struggle for survival of one of the world's most vulnerable groups of people.

60 Years in Photos