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Summary of the synopsis report on the review of UNHCR's phase-out strategies: Case studies in selected countries of origin

Executive Committee Meetings

Summary of the synopsis report on the review of UNHCR's phase-out strategies: Case studies in selected countries of origin

26 March 1998


1. While UNHCR is generally quick to become involved in humanitarian emergencies, the phasing out of its programmes, whether in countries of asylum or of origin, can be a far more lengthy process. In countries of origin, the phase-out of UNHCR's presence is often complicated by the vagueness of rehabilitation objectives and the inability or unwillingness of other agencies to ensure the continuity of the activities initiated by UNHCR.

2. The study attached to this conference room paper endeavours to identify and analyse some major issues and concepts relating to the phase-out of UNHCR's involvement in post-repatriation situations. It also examines typical areas where the continuation of activities that may have been initiated under UNHCR's programme is essential to the consolidation of peace as well as to the prevention of further refugee flows. The report has been written on the basis of a comprehensive analysis of phase-out and hand-over experiences in four large-scale repatriation situations that have taken place in recent years in Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique and Tajikistan.

3. Among a number of general lessons retained from the evaluation exercise, the following are particularly noteworthy:

(i) Minimum objectives of post-return programmes should be defined at the outset of an operation and UNHCR should be prepared to support them until such objectives are reached;

(ii) Where minimum objectives cannot be reached by UNHCR alone, linkages should be sought in the local communities and national structures, and, if needed, with international governmental and non-governmental agencies; and

(iii) It is unlikely that UNHCR will be able to hand over responsibility for the economic and social reintegration of returnees to any single agency.

4. The report has been widely circulated within UNHCR and used as a reference in planning exercises in the field, as well as policy discussions at Headquarters. Other planned evaluations in 1998, such as a survey of UNHCR's strategies for scaling down country presence, will develop from some of the premises established in the phase-out study.


I. Background

1. When refugees go home and settle down they cease to be refugees. The extent to which they continue to be of concern to the international community in general and UNHCR in particular is one of ongoing debate.

2. The Office has always been committed to voluntary repatriation, defined in its Statute as the best solution to a refugee problem, but until recently UNHCR engagement in the country of origin of refugees had been largely limited to seeing the refugees safely home with the wherewithal to make a fresh start.

3. In the past decades, however, a number of major voluntary repatriation operations have seen UNHCR become progressively more involved in reintegration of returnees and, in a more general way, contributing to stabilising the situation which had caused their flight.

4. Today, UNHCR is actively engaged in countries of origin, promoting restoration of social infrastructure, and civil and political rights affecting returnees, and preventing new flows of refugees. UNHCR is not alone in this proactive approach to reintegration. A number of partners both within and outside the UN system are concerned. The success of these joint efforts has varied greatly, however, depending on situations and circumstances.

5. Recognising that UNHCR's engagement is limited by the Mandate, the current debate seeks to define to what degree and with whom UNHCR should be involved in countries of origin, and when and to whom it should hand over and phase out.

II. Evaluating recent operations

6. A comparative study of four recent major repatriation and reintegration operations, in El Salvador, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Mozambique, conducted by the UNHCR Inspection and Evaluation Service, aims at providing some guidance on these issues. The study was carried out by an external consultant experienced in legal and human rights issues, and a senior UNHCR evaluation officer.

7. Extensive field research was undertaken in the four countries. In addition to UNHCR staff at Headquarters and in the field, the team interviewed officials of other UN organisations and programmes, senior government officials, local officials, representatives of donor countries, NGO implementing partners, human rights organisations and the beneficiaries themselves. Consultations were also held with relevant officials of the Secretariat and other major UN organisations in New York.

8. The four case studies reveal the extent to which UNHCR's approach has varied both in duration and methodology from operation to operation. There is therefore a need, the report suggests, to design a systematic approach to phase-out, a matrix to be applied from early stages of operational planning. Otherwise there is a risk of protracted UNHCR assistance, resulting from the Office's inability to ensure the sustainability of activities in vital sectors, beyond its own input.

9. By and large protection of returnee rights has been adequately ensured through linkages with national and international bodies, the report indicates. UNHCR has found it more difficult to link its short-term assistance programmes with longer-term perspectives. From the start, UNHCR needs to identify prospective partners determined to sustain these efforts, bringing community-based or national bodies into play.

10. These partners are often other members of the UN system. Although UNHCR quite naturally takes the lead in major repatriation/reintegration operations, two-way co-operation with other UN agencies based on mutual understanding of organisational objectives and programme expectations is essential.

III. Difficulties finding prospective partners

11. In Cambodia, for example, changed circumstances defeated reintegration plans. Assuming that most refugees were farmers, UNHCR and UNDP jointly planned a two-phase Rural Reintegration Strategy, in association with other UN system humanitarian agencies. The first phase led by UNHCR consisted of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) in returnee areas, while the second featured the UNDP-led longer-term Area Development Programme.

12. It soon became apparent, however, that this plan could not be fully implemented as a prelude to UNHCR's early withdrawal. Access to land was severely limited, either because of continuing Khmer guerrilla activity, or the difficulty for returnees to obtain land titles. Only eight percent of the returnee population could be settled on farm land, benefitting from QIPs, and UNHCR was obliged to substitute cash grants for the vast majority, most of whom, instead of joining existing communities, had to be settled in resettlement sites.

13. A substantial minority became specially vulnerable, and in need of targeted assistance. Furthermore, UNDP efforts were focused on selected districts with high development potential, whereas returnees were mainly located in areas with lesser potential.

14. This meant that UNHCR had to rethink and prolong its engagement in Cambodia, providing a safety net for the vulnerable returnees, engaging in advocacy vis-à-vis other agencies, and providing continued support for land titling. A new strategy was adopted, linking UNHCR with the World Food Programme (WFP) and its implementing partner, the Cambodian Red Cross. The ability of the Red Cross, as well as a number of national NGOs, to assist returnees had to be strengthened through UNHCR capacity-building activities.

15. The difficulty of incorporating returnees in broader development plans, and of finding partners to take over UNHCR assistance, was also experienced in El Salvador, where the bulk of repatriation took place under UNHCR's protection to opposition-held areas before a peace agreement was in place.

16. UNHCR's approach was rooted in the International Conference for Assistance to Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) which the Office initiated, and which promoted regional solutions to refugee problems. Against this background, a United Nations-brokered peace agreement, overseen by a UN mission (ONUSAL) was signed at the end of 1991.

17. Support for reintegration of returnees was envisaged in the CIREFCA process, which provided a conduit for contributions from international donors to governments and national NGOs. In the case of El Salvador, most of this assistance, however, was channelled through NGOs. Once the peace agreement was in place, it became apparent that many returnee communities would receive little or no assistance from either NGOs or the Government. UNHCR was, therefore, obliged to launch its own QIPs to fill the gap.

18. In addition, UNHCR had originally hoped to hand-over its assistance programmes to UNDP, which as part of the CIREFCA process had set up a five-year regional programme (PRODERE) to address the socio-economic causes and consequences of conflict. PRODERE could not be directly linked with UNHCR's phase-out, however, because similarly to what occurred in Cambodia, it focused on areas with development potential, and not necessarily those with large numbers of returnees.

IV. Clear objectives needed

19. The initial lack of implementing partners was also a characteristic of UNHCR's Tajikistan operation, which in addition suffered from the lack of clear objectives from the outset. Unlike Cambodia, UNHCR's involvement did not follow a peace agreement, but was initially conceived as establishment of a pre-emptive presence during an ongoing internal conflict, aimed at preventing massive population displacement from becoming a major refugee problem.

20. During 1992 and early 1993, as many as 140,000 persons fled to Afghanistan, while 600,000 were internally displaced. By the time the Office had firmly established its presence early in 1993, the Government had, however, committed itself to the return of refugees and IDPs. UNHCR therefore shifted its focus to organised repatriation, and reintegration of the returnees and displaced persons.

21. In the early stages, the Office itself had to assume an operational role, due to the absence of suitable implementing partners, whether local or international, in the newly-independent, war-torn country. Nor was it clear how long UNHCR's engagement would be required. It took more than a year for UNHCR to identify suitable international NGOs to implement its reintegration projects, which focused on housing, water supply, income-generation through small entreprise development and NGO capacity building.

22. These projects were hampered and phase-out delayed by economic and social uncertainty, lack of community initiative, scarcity of external encouragement and other factors linked with the sudden shift to a market economy. It is none the less noteworthy, the report points out, that by 1995, when UNHCR ended its reintegration assistance projects, more than 70 percent of refugees and 98 percent of IDPs had returned.

23. It was not, however, possible for UNHCR to conclude a bridging arrangement on reintegration with UNDP, permitting complete UNHCR phase-out, as UNDP's emphasis on longer-term development of national infrastructure made it difficult to link the two partners.

V. Protection and fundamental rights of returnees

24. As regards protection and fundamental rights of returnees, UNHCR has been relatively more successful in handing over to other actors during the phasing out period due to its support of capacity-building activities and effective inter-agency co-operation.

25. In El Salvador, for example, the Office worked closely with ONUSAL, which was monitoring the human rights component of the peace agreement. UNHCR spearheaded government and inter-agency efforts to document all citizens before the 1994 elections. It also played an active role of conciliation concerning land ownership, which was one of the root causes of the civil war, and of direct relevance to returnees.

26. In due course, UNHCR shifted its protection focus to advocacy and capacity-building. It supported the National Council for the Defence of Human rights, which performs functions similar to that of ombudsman, providing training in international refugee and human rights law, and promoting public awareness of these and related issues.

27. When repatriation was completed at the end of 1995, and UNHCR assistance projects were wound up, however, the Office felt committed to maintaining a presence in the country, in order to continue to participate in broader United Nations efforts to promote political stability.

28. Likewise in Cambodia, while phasing out its main assistance projects, UNHCR was obliged to continue efforts to eliminate abuses of returnees due to the political situation and conflicts related to land allocation. Until the end of its mandate in September 1993, UNTAC (The UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia) was active in all aspects of human rights, including advocacy and training, and the investigation of alleged violations, including those affecting returnees.

29. When the human rights component was taken over by the UN Centre for Human Rights, the gravity of the human rights situation in the country made it difficult for the Centre to take up returnee-specific issues such as discrimination in the enjoyment of economic rights. UNHCR therefore became increasingly involved alongside Cambodian NGOs and several other UN agencies in campaigns to raise public awareness of basic human rights, targeting prejudice, intolerance and discrimination which often cause refugee flows.

30. In Tajikistan, human rights abuses and violence against returnees and IDPs were also chronic in the early days of the operation, and UNHCR's protection efforts focused on convincing national and local authorities to step in, with considerable success. When assistance projects were ended there was, however, a continuing need to monitor returnee rights.

31. At UNHCR's instigation the human rights dimension was taken over by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OSCE's high profile and the fact that it accepted to use UNHCR criteria made it possible for UNHCR to confidently hand over this important aspect of reintegration (although the Office maintained a small presence in the country).

VI. Mozambique benefited from experience and planning

32. UNHCR faced fewer difficulties in Mozambique, although phasing out required intensive efforts on the part of the Office. After decades of insurgency and lengthy peace negotiations leading up to the October 1992 Peace Agreement, more than one million refugees and four million internally displaced persons and demobilised soldiers were successfully reintegrated over roughly a three-year period.

33. UNHCR's long-established presence (more than 20 years) and experience in the country, a fairly long planning period, a strategy of systematically building linkages with other agencies, the fact that most returnees could resume a traditional agricultural life in their places of origin, and even good rainfall, all contributed to the success of the operation. The absence of major protection problems was another important factor.

34. Phase-out was facilitated by a plan of operations which recognised that to achieve political and economic stability, all categories of persons affected by the conflict must benefit from international assistance. The Plan made it clear that UNHCR with its Quick Impact Projects could not alone undertake tasks of overall rehabilitation of services and capacity-building.

35. UNHCR's role was made clear under the Government's decentralisation policy, which specified that the Office's main partners at the national level were WFP, the World Bank and the Ministry of Cooperation's Refugee Support Agency. Projected investments from other sources in food production, water supply systems, the rehabilitation of roads and basic services such as health, all were aimed at preventing large-scale movements of returnees to urban areas or outflows of economic migrants to neighbouring countries.

36. UNHCR also developed an approach to handing over to UNDP which was both creative and forward-looking. Called District Development Mapping, this consisted of UNHCR providing UNDP with information on its reintegration projects, district-by-district, including a progress report. Supplemented with other data collected by UNDP and governmental partners, the maps are intended for use to stimulate foreign aid and investment.

37. One of the main hurdles for the Office in adopting a strategy for phasing out in Mozambique was the imposition of a strict deadline of July 1996 for termination of UNHCR's reintegration programme. As repatriation was massive, this put UNHCR under considerable pressure.

38. UNHCR's strategy was to spread responsibility among many partners, including local agencies. The QIPs concept, however, with its emphasis on rapid, low-cost implementation, is not always easy to convert to longer-term sustainable efforts by other agencies, and some were reluctant. Although planning the handover was hurried, the study underlines that the result was by and large a success.

VII. Conclusion

39. In conclusion, the report therefore stresses the need to base time frames for post return programmes on operational objectives rather than pre-determined dates, available funding or such ill-defined concepts as "initial reintegration". Specific issues such as returnees' fundamental rights, land ownership, social infrastructure, provisions for specially vulnerable persons, and basic needs in food, water and shelter must either be resolved or handed over to successor bodies before UNHCR's departure from the scene.

40. It is essential, it remarks, that UNHCR devolves to others as many responsibilities as possible immediately after the return. The considerable knowledge accumulated combined with impressive operational systems confers to UNHCR natural leadership. A sound phase-out strategy would aim at relinquishing this advantage to selected partners.

41. Finally, UNHCR's approach cannot focus exclusively on the roles that other agencies might play in helping it phase out. This needs to be balanced by a willingness to ask what part UNHCR can play in advancing goals of concern to the UN system as a whole.