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Interview with Mengesha Kebede, UNHCR Pakistan representative


Interview with Mengesha Kebede, UNHCR Pakistan representative

26 August 2010 Also available in:

I know that you have been working with various operations throughout your career with UNHCR, how does this one differ in terms of the challenges?

One thing that fascinates me when I listen to the media coverage is that everyone is comparing these floods to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Pakistan Earthquake, and the Haiti earthquake and so on. What I think makes this particular situation different, and is that all the other calamities occurred at a given time, and at the end you have a sense of the scale of the disaster, and it allows you to plan a recovery and intervention accordingly. This flood has been a totally different challenge.

Another dilemma we face is that in Peshawar our warehouses were washed away.  And across the street at WFP’s warehouse, significant amounts of food have been destroyed. These floods impacted every agency.

There is also the challenge of shifting attention. Since, the cameras tend to follow the flow of the river, the impact of the floods, where it actually started happening, appears to have been neglected. So we are caught in a situation whereby we are trying to assist the regions that were first hit, while the media and politicians seem to be focusing on where the event is unfolding, because that is what is newsworthy. So we need to balance the two.

The crisis actually reminds me of other refugee emergencies that we have had before. Some 20 years back, I worked in Malawi where we were having an influx of around 10,000 people crossing from Mozambique everyday. We would start receiving them and providing them with immediate assistance, and the following day, another 10,000 would arrive. Ultimately we ended up having over 1.7 million Mozambican refugees -- 1,000,000 of them in Malawi, and others crossed into Zambia, Zimbabwe and so on. So the current situation in Pakistan is more like a refugee influx situation of that magnitude.

What makes the current Pakistan flooding crisis stand out, and what we need to keep reminding everyone, is that Pakistan, before this flood situation, had and continues to provide asylum and shelter to well over 1.7 million Afghans. The largest refugee population in the world and definitely challenging because it happens to be the most protracted. Of the 1.7 million Afghans, 1.4 million reside in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan which are provinces that have been devastated by the floods. So refugees and their host communities have been impacted. This is one situation which should not be forgotten.

How are these refugees being accounted for in terms of how government allocates resources?  Is government less likely to give funding to a certain province because it’s mainly comprised of Afghan refugees?

Fundamentally, from a UNHCR perspective, the delivery of assistance and protection to the flood victims has to be governed by the principles of neutrality. Neutrality and Objectivity, in the sense that it should be based purely on identified needs. In that regard we should be responding to a population that has been impacted by the floods, looking at their protection needs – the vulnerable women and children – and their requirements for shelter and other household assistance.

Daily, I am receiving one fax after another from politicians claiming that their districts are the most affected. But at the end, there has to be a principle that we prioritise the most vulnerable and needy because the needs are tremendous across the length and breadth of Pakistan.

What is one striking image or memory from your time watching these floods unfold in Pakistan?

There is one that has stayed in my mind. We were driving back to Islamabad, and eventually had to cross the river Kabul. After driving along the river for awhile, I noticed that a huge tree was flowing down and overtook a car. That image really illustrates the power of the flow…the fact that it could carry this huge tree as if it were a box of matches.



The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.