Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Staff Stress and Security: A Management Challenge for UNHCR

Executive Committee Meetings

Staff Stress and Security: A Management Challenge for UNHCR

15 August 1997



1. The high degree of danger and stress to which UNHCR staff in many parts of the world have been exposed in recent years is severely affecting their ability to respond effectively to humanitarian needs. Killings of humanitarian workers and other dramatic events in the former Yugoslavia, the Great Lakes region of Africa, Chechnya (Russian Federation), Central Asia and elsewhere have taken an increasingly tragic toll.

2. At the request of the High Commissioner, the Inspection and Evaluation Service has conducted an in-depth review of UNHCR's experience and practice regarding staff security and stress management. The objective was to identify current shortcomings and to propose comprehensive policy guidelines for the Office, within the broader context of the United Nations system. This paper summarizes the report of two external consultants who travelled to 28 duty stations in 13 countries of Africa, Asia and Europe, interviewing several hundred international and local/national staff members (and in some cases their families), and colleagues from other United Nations agencies and international organizations, in the field, as well as at Headquarters.

3. More than two out of three staff members, international and national, are now working in security-risk areas, the report points out. Fully one third of all international staff are serving in particularly hazardous duty stations. Humanitarian workers are more and more often deliberately targeted. In many conflict situations, humanitarian agencies, by filling a political vacuum, have themselves become part of the battle. Soldiering on in conditions of extreme violence and hardship, some staff members neglect their own well-being to the point of grave risk to their physical and mental health. Many are recruited and posted at very short notice, and receive limited specific security-related training or information on the situations and conditions in which they will find themselves.

4. Strengthened management and leadership in the field and at Headquarters to support those on the "front line" are recommended by the consultants in order to enhance staff security and combat the negative effects of stress. While recognizing that UNHCR has made notable progress in these areas, the report proposes strategies which would more closely knit staff stress management and security concerns into overall policy, and pinpoints areas where some additional staffing and funds would be needed. It underlines that resources devoted to security (and stress management) should not be subject to budgetary restrictions.


5. "UNHCR has exposed its staff to unacceptable levels of violence... I don't think we have a threshold any more," a staff member told the evaluation team. The concept of "security thresholds" - how far humanitarian workers can be expected to go in placing themselves at grave risk in order to assist and protect the victims of conflict - needs to be urgently reappraised by United Nations, international and non-governmental agencies."UNHCR and its partners are taking more risks than the military with nothing and nobody preventing them from doing so", the consultants point out. They therefore urge UNHCR to take a lead by inviting all agencies concerned, under the aegis of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD), to jointly define minimal conditions for service in such situations.

6. Risks to the physical safety of staff serving in conflict zones range from direct ground and air attacks, mines, generalized violence and crime, to the more individualized hostage-taking, detentions and harassment, often involving extortion, that sometimes deliberately targets humanitarian workers and, notably, local staff. Surrounded on a daily basis by death, destruction and bad news, many staff do not take even the most routine precautions in high-risk areas. Working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, living in the midst of violence and danger, often separated from their families, they too often gravitate towards self-neglect: skipping meals, smoking heavily and drinking excessively. The impact of such habits on their physical and mental health, and, in turn, on the effectiveness of emergency operations, was not always well-understood by the staff themselves. Some were frankly sceptical that stress was a problem, or considered it to be simply "part of the job".

7. Stress and staff security go hand in hand, the report points out. When related to immediate and direct danger, it is described as "critical incident stress". Even when not directly under fire, persons living and working in or near war zones suffer from "cumulative stress". Nor is stress limited to staff working in high security-risk operations. Many field staff assigned to remote and inhospitable areas suffer hardships which are near-intolerable: inadequate or overcrowded working and living environments, extreme and unhealthy climates, hostility of the local authorities and/or population, endemic violence and crime.

8. In a number of situations visited by the evaluation team, strong leadership and skillful management by experienced senior staff promoted team spirit and motivation, and helped counteract some of the negative effects of danger and stress. In others, such crucially important leadership was perceived by staff members to be lacking. Inevitably in the latter situations, inter-personal problems negatively affect teamwork, both with colleagues and external partners in the field. The consultants, therefore, called for heightened awareness by all managers and staff on the causes and effects of cumulative stress, and how to avoid it.

9. They also found that staff were sometimes reluctant to report security risks or excessively difficult working conditions to their superiors or to Headquarters, in case, in their perception, such complaints would jeopardize future assignments or employment. Many staff also complained of a communications gap with Headquarters, perceived to be demanding of those in the "front line", but unresponsive to their needs. Others noted they had received little briefing or training specifically related to the situations to which the had been assigned, often at very short notice. The report underlines the need for a constant two-way flow of information for all staff, including local staff, regarding situation developments and policy decisions affecting their security and welfare. This, they point out, would contribute enormously to morale-building in the field.


10. The consultants identified six broad categories of factors generating stress:

(i) Living conditions;

(ii) Family separation;

(iii) Working conditions;

(iv) Critical incidents;

(v) Organizational aspects (concerning how staff members relate to the Organization and its mission); and

(vi) External relations (for example, with national authorities, the refugees themselves, the local community, other humanitarian organizations, the media).

Various management initiatives have been taken to address these problems, notably by UNHCR's Division of Human Resources Management (DHRM), the Medical Service and the Staff Welfare Unit. These innovations should now be built into an organization-wide Stress Management Strategy.

11. For example, measures have been taken at a number of duty stations to remove staff temporarily from situations of severe stress and/or physical danger, to allow them to recover physically and mentally, either on a voluntary or mandatory basis. This implies the availability of sufficient staff in the field offices concerned to cover such absences and should be taken into account when planning operations in high stress/security risk locations. Likewise, a "decompression programme" for staff members leaving such locations should be provided. Those being transferred should be allowed a recovery period of a minimum of one month between assignments (three to six months if they are identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder).

12. Other measures are proposed with respect to the recruitment and deployment of staff to high stress/security risk duty stations. They include: keeping staff members informed on career development prospects; ensuring that contracts for new recruits are of at least six months duration; testing six and twelve month maximum assignments for staff posted to danger areas; and ensuring gender balance in all duty stations, while at the same time identifying and addressing specific security concerns of female staff.

13. The Medical Service and Staff Welfare Unit need to be reinforced, thereby enabling it to participate in a pro-active, preventive approach to stress by, among other things, providing training and counselling; identifying qualified professionals in the field to assist with medical clearances; carrying-out assessment missions; and generally promoting health and well-being. Outposted staff welfare officers/counsellors should be deployed to high-risk areas.

14. Basic standards for living accommodation, catering, sports and recreation facilities also need to be established. Staff serving in high-risk duty stations should be given access to reasonably priced or subsidized telecommunications services to facilitate regular contact with family and friends. In addition, in some situations, leased aircraft may have to be used to transport staff in need of relief from serious risk and intolerable stress.

15. Useful lessons can also be learned, the report points out, from what other United Nations and international organizations are doing, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mandate is primarily related to conflict situations, and which has been implementing a stress management policy for some years.


16. Although hazards and casualties are not new experiences for UNHCR, since the early 1990s, in the face of growing violence on three continents, working in high-risk areas has become an all too common feature of field service. Many of the international staff posted in danger areas are at the junior level, with little prospect of rotating to better (or safer) posts in the Organization. Two massive operations (in the former Yugoslavia and in the Great Lakes region of Africa) have more than doubled the size of UNHCR's staff and many current staff members have been working in security-risk duty stations for the past three to four years. Due to the temporary and emergency nature of these assignments, physical insecurity is linked with career insecurity.

17. Host Governments are theoretically responsible for the security of humanitarian workers and their dependants, but all too often the breakdown of law and order, the failure of state authority, or rule by unstable de facto authorities, leave international humanitarian organizations on their own or obliged to negotiate with resistance movements. There is, therefore, more than ever, a need for an effective United Nations security system on which staff and their families can rely.

18. Within the United Nations system (and this of course applies to UNHCR), overall responsibility for staff security lies with UNSECOORD, acting on behalf of the Secretary-General. Crucial decisions, such as evacuation of staff, must be cleared with the United Nations Headquarters in New York. While recognizing the value of the current system-wide security arrangements, UNHCR field staff often felt they were of unequal value according to time, place and circumstances. A vigorous effort is currently underway at the inter-agency level to strengthen these arrangements, the report points out, with agencies, including UNHCR, contributing a wealth of recent experience.

19. This experience includes, for example, situations where political, military and humanitarian objectives are intertwined, with simultaneous deployment of international humanitarian agencies and peace-keeping forces, United Nations Civilian Police or Military Observers. These latter actors have increasingly been called upon to provide security and logistical assistance to international humanitarian operations. Such invaluable assistance, however, is not without its own problems. Civilian staff, accustomed to taking initiative to address immediate needs, have sometimes found it difficult to deal with disciplined military forces, trained to follow orders and stick to the rules. The report also notes that the roles and terms of collaboration between United Nations peace-keepers and UNSECOORD remain imprecise. A useful initiative by UNHCR, the consultants note, was the development of two training documents with input from both military and civilian experts.

20. The United Nations Field Security Handbook makes it mandatory that a security and evacuation plan be prepared at each duty station. United Nations security arrangements are implemented in several phases, which cover of precautionary measures, restrictions on staff movement, relocation, programme suspension and evacuation of international staff and their dependants. The key person responsible at country level is the Designated Official (DO), generally the UNDP Resident Representative, but in some situations the UNHCR Representative. An advisory Security Management Team represents all United Nations agencies present in the country. UNHCR is sometimes responsible in part of a country where it has the lead role, as was the case recently in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. When conditions warrant, United Nations Field Staff Security Officers (FSSOs) are assigned to advise the DO full-time.

21. UNHCR has taken steps to improve its own response to security problems within the overall system-wide parameters. As the Office often finds itself operating alone, far from the capital-based DO, the present arrangements do not always serve to communicate the specific concerns of UNHCR field staff across the system. Bearing this in mind, the Office has appointed its own Field Staff Safety Coordinator (FSSC), a Field Staff Safety Section (FSSS) has been set up within DHRM and UNHCR Field Staff Safety Advisers (FSSAs) are being deployed to make on-the-spot security assessments and recommendations, brief newly-arrived staff, provide training and advice on office and home security and assist in the drawing-up and review of evacuation plans. Provided close liaison is maintained between the two, the consultants see little risk of overlap between FSSAs and the capital-based United Nations FSSO, who is fully-occupied with managing the country-wide security plan.

22. The report recommends further strengthening the FSSS and ensuring that it relates more directly to those responsible for operations and policy, both at Headquarters and in the field. Reflecting concerns expressed by field staff, the consultants recommended that security briefings for new staff be more specifically tailored to the situations in which they will find themselves. Such briefings should also be given systematically to already-serving staff members who are transferred to difficult and high-risk duty stations.

23. Within the United Nations system, UNHCR has been a pioneer in developing a Personal Security Awareness training package. The materials are being used in courses sponsored by UNSECOORD and are available to UNHCR and other agency staff, government officials and NGOs. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of UNHCR's own staff has undergone this training. Far more staff both at Headquarters and in the field should benefit from this training, with priority being given to new recruits, Representatives and team leaders being assigned for the first time to a security-risk area.

24. Security also depends on the supply of appropriate protective equipment, ranging from bullet proof vests and flak jackets to armoured vehicles. Special procurement and deployment procedures have been developed recently, based on lessons learnt in situations such as that in the former Yugoslavia. Here the consultants saw room for further improvement. Another vital factor is telecommunications. The report notes that UNHCR is well able to respond in emergencies. With its telecommunications equipment stockpile and network of outposted experts, the Office can supply appropriate equipment and training at short notice.


25. The consultants also found that the specific security concerns of local staff also call for urgent review. Often working close to danger, they are expected to keep the field office running in case of evacuation of international staff. According to the United Nations Field Security Handbook, they themselves may be evacuated in "only the most exceptional cases in which their security is endangered, or their property is lost or damaged as a direct consequence of their employment by the United Nations organizations." Other options open for local staff may be relocation to a safer area in the country or special leave with pay.

26. The report stresses that UNHCR Representatives can, and do, exercise considerable flexibility in addressing the problem. In addition to proposing an in-depth review of the security of national staff, the consultants recommended a number of routine preventive steps, such as systematically keeping accurate records of national staff and their dependants, involving them in all discussions and planning affecting their security, and including them in security and stress-related training.

27 In a similar vein, the report addresses the situation of implementing partner staff, such as NGOs. The United Nations Field Security Handbook provides for assistance to persons from outside the Organization and their dependants when they are working in cooperation with the United Nations through NGOs or other voluntary organizations.

28. UNHCR has provided its implementing partners with training, daily security within the framework of the Security Plan and emergency security, including the evacuation of international staff. A recent UNSECOORD directive, however, requires that implementing partners must request inclusion in the plan and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DO. The MOU includes the necessary waivers of responsibility from the United Nations organizations and cost-sharing arrangements. The MOU also obliges implementing partners to follow precisely the instructions of DOs, and to report on staff movements and all security incidents. These measures are clearly essential if the United Nations is to provide security to implementing partners. In the case of tensions resulting from an NGO's desire to retain its independence, the report points out that much depends on the establishment of relations of trust between UNHCR Representatives and implementing partners in the field.


29. UNHCR policy on field staff security (as in the case of the closely-linked issue of stress management) needs coordinated action on many different levels. A wide variety of actors come into play in any given situation, ranging from UNHCR and other parts of the United Nations system (including peace-keeping forces), to Governments, local authorities, parties in conflict and others, such as the NATO Implementation Force in Bosnia. Furthermore, the consultants underline that procedures are of limited or no use without the right people with the good judgement and experience to make them work. This places a considerable burden on managers in the field and it is vital that they, as well as specialized security personnel and the staff at large, all feel accountable for the measures they take to protect themselves and others. Decisions as to whether or not staff will be placed in jeopardy, despite known security risks, are fundamental. The same applies to decisions on when to pull-out of a deteriorating situation and whether a pull-out should be partial or total, short-term or long-term.

30. Ensuring that funds are available for staff security must also be promoted with Governments. At UNHCR's initiative, a unanimous declaration was adopted by the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), insisting that staff security projects should be excluded from any budgetary restrictions.1 It is hoped that this will positively influence governing bodies and donors. The report strongly endorses the view of many UNHCR field staff that "security costs money, but people are the Organization's most valuable asset."

1 Administrative Committee on Coordination, Second Regular Session of 1995, New York, 12 and 13 October 1995 (ACC/1995/23, para. 37).