This chapter examines the impact of conflict and insecurity on forced displacement and the humanitarian response worldwide. In view of the tens of millions of people forcibly displaced by conflict today, the chapter examines the changing nature of conflict, the challenges this poses for humanitarian action, and the ‘risk management’ approach adopted by UNHCR and other humanitarian actors. It concludes with an outline of expected future challenges in addressing forced displacement in conflicts.

A woman at the ruins of her house in Osh, Kyrgyzstan following a wave of ethnic violence in June 2010.

A woman at the ruins of her house in Osh, Kyrgyzstan following a wave of ethnic violence in June 2010.

In 2011, UNHCR worked in situations of armed conflict more than ever before in its 60-year history. A majority of the 10.5* million refugees under its mandate fled from conflicts, more than half of them from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Since the start of 2011, UNHCR has responded to new outflows from Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Mali and Sudan, and it continued to respond to large numbers (two-thirds of all refugees) in long-term exile from protracted conflicts that offered few prospects of return. Further, UNHCR’s expanded role with regard to IDPs since 2005 means its involvement in almost all complex emergencies. Some 27.5* million people were internally displaced by conflict in 2011, and many of them needed protection.

However, UNHCR’s presence in conflict areas is relatively recent, beginning in the Balkans in 1991-1995 and following in the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq during the 1990s and 2000s. This increased involvement coincided with rising international humanitarian action in conflict zones, as well as donor financial support, media attention and expectations of a swift humanitarian response.

Changing conflict

In the last quarter century, UNHCR has increasingly operated in conflicts of a different nature. Today’s conflicts frequently involve different ethnic or religious groups, combining political, communitarian and criminal violence. Violence that appears indiscriminate may also be deliberately targeted at certain groups of civilians, and may include the use of sexual and gender-based violence. These armed conflicts may be aimed at securing social or economic power, and usually affect areas in repeated cycles. When UNHCR was established in 1950, armed conflict usually meant wars between states, and generally allowed limited scope for humanitarian action until the conflict ended.

In today’s conflicts, the agents of violence have multiplied. Instead of uniformed forces and non-state actors who exercise de facto control over territory and people, today’s conflicts often involve a myriad of private actors who may feel little sense of responsibility towards local populations. Some include violent criminal organizations who seek to take control of land and territory for economic purposes, or individuals associated with violent international ideological movements that seek to exploit local grievances. In today’s conflicts, the distinction is blurred between combatant and civilian—a cornerstone of international humanitarian law.

Box 1.3 The Lord’s Resistance Army: a transnational threat

While wars today seem to kill fewer people than past conflicts, greater numbers of civilians appear to be exposed and vulnerable to violence, especially where the state offers little protection for citizens. In these situations, citizens may further suffer the impacts of government dysfunction, loss of livelihoods, shortages of basic necessities, as well as natural disasters, and demographic pressures—all of which contribute to their insecurity, displacement and vulnerability. Today’s conflicts often have far-reaching impacts on civilians, and particularly on the vulnerable: children, people living with disabilities, and older people. Many people are forced to flee their homes to destinations that are insecure, to urban areas, to countries where access to asylum is restricted, and to distant new destinations. Protracted conflicts also translate into seemingly permanent displacement, often in dire conditions and in dependency on aid.

In many conflicts, conditions do not allow people to receive international protection and humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian space—the conditions that enable people in need to have access to protection and assistance, and for humanitarian actors to respond to their needs—is shrinking. In these conflicts, UNHCR may not be allowed to discharge its core mandate to provide international protection to refugees and to assist governments in finding durable solutions for refugees. Conditions in many crises today have presented major challenges to humanitarian action, especially where causes of displacement and serious human rights abuses go unaddressed, as in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Yemen. These challenges tend to grow over time without a political solution to the conflict.

Box 1.5 Yemen: a complex environment

Humanitarian challenges

Humanitarian action is predicated on respect for fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. UNHCR’s Statute states that the agency’s work shall be of an entirely non-political, ‘humanitarian’ character. Humanitarian principles are also important for organizations that operate in insecure environments, since only those who respect them are entitled to protection under international law, and respecting them is believed to foster acceptance by armed actors and affected communities. However, an agency’s respect for humanitarian principles is not sufficient to ensure effective humanitarian action if parties to a conflict do not respect human rights. In practice, agents of violence have frequently flouted humanitarian principles, and states have subordinated them to political and security imperatives. Humanitarian organizations often face bad and still worse options in dealing with armed actors who can facilitate or obstruct humanitarian action according to their perception of humanitarian action and its impact on their objectives.

Despite efforts to be strictly non-political, aid may become politicized when humanitarian action is closely associated with political action. Multidimensional UN peacekeeping or political missions are organized around the principle of ‘integration’, and seek to align the objectives and actions of all UN agencies and forces present. Humanitarian agencies have raised concerns about the impact of integration missions on neutral, independent humanitarian action; supporting a political transition process demands a degree of partiality, notably where UN peacekeeping forces take enforcement action. Where there is tension between humanitarian and political imperatives, many fear the latter will always prevail. UNHCR believes integration can bring real benefits in countries in the peacebuilding phase, but where conflict continues humanitarian actors must not be perceived as having political or security agendas.

The ‘stabilization’ approaches adopted by NATO members and others in failed or conflict-affected states raise similar concerns, as they combine foreign policy, military, and assistance activities to enhance human security and state security. They have sometimes misrepresented military and civilian assistance programmes as ‘humanitarian’. Such approaches can reduce ‘humanitarian space’, undermining efforts to promote acceptance of humanitarian action, putting staff at risk, and even turning them into targets—as seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The changing nature of conflicts has significantly affected humanitarian operations, threatening the security of aid workers, and restricting access to potential beneficiaries. The number of attacks on aid workers has increased dramatically, even though providing humanitarian aid in an environment of violence is inherently risky. Some challenges are specific to refugee operations, and UNHCR’s responsibilities sometimes place it in direct opposition to the forces that target or threaten refugees and other displaced people. Humanitarian action cannot remove the causes of displacement, but strengthening legitimate institutions and governance is considered crucial to breaking cycles of violence, and international justice mechanisms can bring to account the perpetrators of large-scale abuses against civilians. Since needs may be greatest in situations where the risks are also greatest, humanitarian organizations have often continued operations, even in conditions where humanitarian principles are in jeopardy. Identifying when the problems faced outweigh the benefits delivered is difficult, and humanitarian organizations remain reluctant to make such a determination.

Fighting in 2008 forced civilians to flee to this makeshift camp in eastern DRC.

Fighting in 2008 forced civilians to flee to this makeshift camp in eastern DRC.

Risk management

Insecurity is perceived as the greatest direct challenge facing UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations today, so considerable attention has been devoted to finding ways to operate safely in high-risk environments. Within the UN, there has been a shift in approach from risk avoidance focussed on ‘when to leave’ to risk management focussed on ‘how to stay,’ as outlined in the 2011 study, To Stay and Deliver. A risk management approach requires careful appreciation of threats in an operating environment; analysis to determine the likelihood of dangerous events and their possible impacts; weighing of risks against the importance of the humanitarian action; and adopting measures to reduce the likelihood or impact of threats to humanitarian work. A first step is to encourage and support actions by the authorities to uphold their responsibility for the safety of humanitarian staff and, where risks remain, other measures may be necessary as articulated in the UN’s Minimum Operational Safety Standards (MOSS).

UNHCR has considered it vital to promote acceptance, by ensuring that all concerned, particularly local communities, understand and accept the aim of its work and its non-political character. UNHCR has also sought to empower its national staff and build effective local partnerships—while ensuring that risk is not simply transferred to them—and to develop new mechanisms for monitoring programme delivery. In some environments, UNHCR may need to cooperate with host government troops, UN forces or other foreign military forces as the only means to continue its humanitarian action. However, UNHCR’s ability to operate effectively still depends greatly on the training of its in-country staff in security risk management policy and practices.

Looking ahead

Today’s conflicts pose many challenges for humanitarian organizations, and humanitarian action is affected by many factors over which the organizations have little control. In recent years, despite the many constraints, UNHCR and its partners have been able to continue operating in many complex and insecure environments. Forced displacement trends suggest there will be a continuing—and probably increasing—need to ‘stay and deliver’ in such contexts, requiring innovation, discipline, principles and realism. Still, the most effective humanitarian action can only be palliative; addressing root causes of forced displacement requires other actions. In the absence of such actions, there is a need for greater international solidarity with refugees, IDPs, their host states and communities.

[Note: Figures marked with an asterisk (*) were corrected on 4 June 2012.]