Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1995
Sometimes, all of UNHCR's experience, preparedness, and strong donor support are not enough to save lives and protect refugees. The huge influx of Rwandan refugees into Zaire in 1994 was a case in point.
By Fernando Del Mundo
In recent years, UNHCR has gained much experience and achieved a high level of preparedness in dealing with refugee emergencies. Along with its growing reputation as a "can-do" agency in emergency situations, UNHCR has also been able to gain the confidence of donors in funding difficult operations from Bosnia to Burundi. But sometimes, all of this experience, preparedness and money are simply not enough to save lives and protect refugees.
While a traditional emergency response – funded by donor cash and using NGO and U.N. agency expertise – is the norm, UNHCR has in very exceptional circumstances had to turn to the military and civil defense arms of donor governments for massive, in-kind help in the face of overwhelming, life-threatening situations.
And should such an exceptional response again be required in the future, UNHCR continues to refine this "service package" concept in which donor governments would be called upon to deploy urgently needed equipment and personnel in a timely and efficient fashion.
"We have developed a whole range of emergency responses which, together with the resources and capabilities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have enabled us to cope with a wide range of emergencies," said Janet Lim, chief of UNHCR's Emergency Preparedness and Response Section. "However, this capacity is not ad infinitum. You never know when the day will come when the magnitude of the crisis is so overwhelming that this range of capacities will not be enough to cope."
UNHCR first requested donors to provide self-contained service packages in July 1994, when more than 1.2 million Rwandan refugees flooded into Zaire's inhospitable Goma region over a four-day period. In south-western Rwanda, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more refugees were heading toward Bukavu, also in Zaire, south of Goma.
The exodus into Zaire – the largest and fastest refugee movement ever seen – came while UNHCR was either preparing for or already dealing with other Rwandan refugee movements in Tanzania, Burundi and elsewhere. In late April, for example, more than 200,000 Rwandans swept into Tanzania in a 24-hour period. Thousands more were continuing to stream into Tanzania and neighbouring Burundi when the Goma influx occurred some three months later.
For the Goma operation, UNHCR asked governments to consider providing help with eight individual service packages, including airport management, airport and local logistics services, provision of fuel, water and sanitation facilities, and preparation of refugee camp sites and roads. Among those who responded were the United States, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Ireland, France, The Netherlands, Algeria, Sweden and Japan. Many other countries provided in-kind contributions.
"What happened in Goma was so large an influx, so rapid, so catastrophic that UNHCR made a very clear appeal to donors to supplement its response capacity, and that of NGOs," said Filippo Grandi, UNHCR's senior emergency officer who headed the Goma operation.
Grandi noted that the various components of the service packages did not arrive in Goma immediately, and that the few U.N. agencies and NGOs already on the ground "worked miracles" in the face of impossible odds. "The achievements of the NGOs were absolutely remarkable," he said. "For example, Médecins Sans Frontières staff set up clinics right in the middle of all the chaos and cholera and worked day and night for days on end. Oxfam staff set up water installations which saved thousands of lives. Local NGOs formed teams to pick up the thousands of bodies and take them for burial."
It was a valiant effort indeed, but it was not enough. More than a million people had converged on a remote area where the only thing in abundance was volcanic rock. Starting almost totally from scratch, UNHCR had to find immediately scores of water tankers, trucks, bulldozers, and earth movers. In other, more accessible areas, it might have been able to hire many of these things locally to set up a camp and organize the delivery of services. But not here. Even with all the funding in the world, it was impossible to meet the immediate needs of 1.2 million people – equivalent to the entire population of Liverpool, Marseilles or Portland, Oregon – with no infrastructure in place to support them.
Water tankers were a top priority in the service package formulation for Goma. Tens of thousands of refugees were dying of dehydration, dysentery and cholera on arrival in Zaire. The provision of clean water would make the difference between life and death. But half the refugee population – some 500,000 people – were in places where water systems could not be built immediately.
"If you could conveniently place the people where you can distribute food and water easily, you diminish risks and you improve access," said Grandi. "But that was not the case here. People were everywhere. People think that the only life-saving things are food and medicine. But there are many others things which are just as important. These service packages are all basic needs."
Grandi said the swift deployment of bulldozers and earth movers could have saved more lives. Initially, a few military bulldozers were secured and flown in from the United States. Later, more equipment – funded by USAID for the British NGO Action Aid – was flown in on U.S. Air Force planes in what Grandi describes as a "mixed package."
The Goma airlift, coordinated in part by the UNHCR Sarajevo airlift cell in Geneva, was "very impressive," Grandi said. Despite the chaos and confusion on the ground, as many as 40 flights a day from around the world brought relief supplies into the small Goma airfield. "We had a lot of information-flow problems, a lot of logistical problems on the ground, but the flights never stopped coming. Without the airlift, we could not have distributed food and medicine immediately," said Grandi.
Grandi said the Swedish Rescue Agency, the civil defense arm of the Swedish government, did a good job laying out Goma's Kahindo camp. The Irish government sent a few dozen military people in civilian clothes who did an outstanding job in organizing warehouses and convoys, securing clearance from the airport and moving supplies between camps.
The French forces, who were already in Goma for their humanitarian intervention inside Rwanda, supplied facilities whenever requested. They did things nobody wanted to do, said Grandi. "For many days, they were almost alone burying the bodies. We had tens of thousands of deaths. There were an incredible number of bodies to bury. It is a terrible thing, but at one stage, our main worry was that we didn't have the digging capacity to bury all those bodies in a hygienic way."
Working quietly but effectively, the French also provided water in the most critical phase, helped distribute food and filled in activities which the relief agencies could not cover.
Grandi said coordination was the key to the efficient implementation of the service packages in Goma. Government ministers and generals from some of the world's most powerful armies attended meetings called by UNHCR to work out with relief organizations strategies for the delivery of assistance.
The swift response by donor governments helped ease the suffering in Goma tremendously, but the experience also showed a need to improve the service package arrangements. Said Lim: "There was no prior understanding with governments on what it was that we needed. There was a need for a clarification of terminology. There were no procedures established. We were just responding."
In early 1995, a task force headed by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs was established under the Interagency Standing Committee to develop a common framework to ensure the most effective exceptional use of donor governments' military and civil defense assets.
Operating guidelines issued by the task force emphasize that:
The guidelines seek to ease concerns of NGOs and other relief organizations that the deployment of donor assets may compromise the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian missions. Over the years, NGOs have developed with UNHCR an efficient and effective capacity to handle emergencies. Some of the NGOs have acquired a degree of expertise in areas specified by UNHCR and the development of the service packages has caused apprehension among them.
"I think these concerns have very largely been allayed by our explanations of what we are doing," said Nicholas Morris, director of UNHCR's Division of Programme and Operational Support. He stressed that humanitarian recourse to donor governments' military resources would be a "last resort" and only in "unique" situations.
"Some people thought that the most difficult and challenging crises now had this new magic solution of using the military. That's not the case," said Morris. "We recognize that there are certain things that maybe only the military can do, whether it is on mountaintops in northern Iraq/south-eastern Turkey or the airlift into Sarajevo, provided the circumstances are appropriate for such military support. But what we are also trying to do is limit the need for recourse to the military by increasing our own capacity and that of our NGO and other traditional partners."
When an exceptional situation calls for the introduction of military assets, the relief operation will work not just with one country but with a group of different providers to preserve its multilateral character and avoid the risk of compromising the humanitarian assistance. For example, while the United States has the strategic capacity for a major airlift, a coalition of countries, in fact, has operated in such areas as the former Yugoslavia, eastern Zaire and in northern Iraq/south-eastern Turkey.
Several meetings have been held over the past year with about 20 potential participants who have been requested to identify specific packages they may be able to provide and then work out technical specifications with UNHCR.
The aim is to develop the packages in sufficient detail so that what is needed is clearly spelled out, while leaving specifications broad enough to have a good chance of meeting different situations. When exceptional circumstances call for the use of service packages, UNHCR would expect them to be fully funded by the contributing government over and above normal contributions.
"One important objective is that if we do need to identify a situation where our capacity cannot cope, that the assistance we request is clearly understood and well specified. That is to say that if there is a response that will be determined by a clear understanding and, to the extent possible, advance agreement on the specifications," Morris said.
"So that if we asked for that particular sort of assistance for the water sector, the potential providers know what we are asking as they determine all the political and funding considerations, parliamentary authority and all the other obvious steps that need to be taken to respond," he said. "We cannot press a button and be sure that any government will respond positively. What we are trying to do is to make sure that they have the necessary elements – what's really needed – for a swift decision."
UNHCR has gone a long way in preparing itself to meet emergencies. But the work is never done, as the Goma experience showed. "Saving lives means pushing ever further the limits of preparedness," said Lim. There is no price tag on this, she said, and UNHCR is exploring all appropriate options.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (1995)