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Q&A: Better to be safe than sorry


Q&A: Better to be safe than sorry

Liz Ahua is about to take up her new post as UNHCR Representative to Kenya after heading the agency's Field Safety Section. She discusses security issues.
11 January 2008
Liz Ahua outside UNHCR headquarters in Geneva towards the end of her assignment as chief of the Field Safety Section.

GENEVA, January 11 (UNHCR) - Liz Ahua is about to take up her new post as UNHCR Representative to Kenya, where her experience over the past two-and-a-half years as head of the agency's Field Safety Section will be useful. Security is a major concern for UNHCR, which lost four staff members in Algeria and Chad late last year. Ahua joined UNHCR in Kenya in 1995, after working for government departments in her native Nigeria. Married with four children, she has since worked in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia and Geneva. Ahua talked recently to Senior Information Officer Astrid van Genderen Stort. Excerpts from the interview:

What has UNHCR been doing to address the issue of security?

There has been increased danger in practically every part of the world. UNHCR has been looking at the [security] problem in earnest for at least the past 10 years. We started sending security staff to areas where we operate, especially in high-risk zones. These professionals would help their colleagues in the field look at the security environment and take precautions to enable them to carry out their work.

It started in the 1990s in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], where refugees coming from Rwanda were accompanied by armed men. Security liaison officers were appointed and deployed with UNHCR. They were police and military personnel sent by the Dutch government to help UNHCR liaise with the armed men that were in our camps and to help us liaise with the Congolese military.

In addition, the government deployed army troops to protect the camps for us.... They stayed in our camps overnight to monitor what was happening and to prevent residents, some of whom were armed, from coming and going.... They also facilitated the work of UNHCR staff and implementing partners during the day and maintained law and order in the camps.

That was when we started looking at the various options for protecting refugees in the camps. Over the years we have developed a security policy unique to UNHCR and we have worked more closely with the body coordinating security for UN agencies, the DSS [Department for Safety and Security].

The other thing we have done is to try to raise awareness among the staff. In the past, our mandate and the UN flag was protection enough, but so many things have changed.... Today, we are dealing with such a multiplicity of groups that we really had to come up with other ways of delivering protection and/or assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.

So there was a need to train staff to understand the environment in which they were delivering and to make them realize that just because your heart is in the right place and you have a mandate to do protection does not mean you will be allowed to do your work without being attacked.

Has it worked? Are our staff more aware of security issues and risks?

The staff generally are more aware. I get the impression that the international staff are much more aware than the national staff. This is because we have not focused the same amount of attention on the national staff. Of course the threats and risks are to a large extent different. But in 2007, in countries where we have FSAs (Field Security Advisers), we began listing which of the national staff have been trained and in which areas. We are also encouraging DSS to provide training that caters to the security needs of national staff.

We've asked the FSAs to pay special attention to training drivers [three of those killed in December were drivers] - we have 870 drivers in the organization. We've also requested them to train guards, because they are the first point of contact for staff and for refugees and external partners who come to our offices. We hope that national staff will become more aware of what safety measures to take.

Are there any specific courses on security for staff?

The Field Safety Section is responsible for the SMLP [Security Management Learning Programme]. Since 2005, we have trained 139 managers with supervisory authority over 2,000 staff, representing one third of the organization's staff strength.

The Emergency Preparedness Response Section conducts a regular Workshop on Emergency Management, or WEM. Security is included as a component of the WEM and colleagues are exposed to notions of security management and practical survival when faced with situations such as hostage taking, carjacking, crowds of protesting refugees, convoy management, and the like.

How many personnel are there in the Field Safety Section?

Thirty-four are in the field. They are all in high-phase insecurity areas. Then you have about seven of us here in headquarters and we have senior regional field safety advisers placed in hubs. In Africa, we have someone in Accra who covers West Africa up to Central Africa. We have someone in Nairobi who covers the east and the Horn [of Africa] and also gives a hand to countries in southern Africa. We have someone in Tokyo providing coverage for countries in Asia and the Pacific. We also have a surge capacity of five posts and they are really the ones that go out troubleshooting for us when we have emergencies.

We also work very, very closely with the DSS and security officers from other agencies, such as WFP [World Food Programme]. When we don't have a person in a particular country, the WFP person from time-to-time can provide support. If we don't have an FSA and we need somebody, we will reach out to DSS. The fact that DSS has expanded so much means that we should not have to take on too many additional staff.... We have to use DSS much more. We contribute a lot for DSS staff - US$5.5 million each year.

What are the most difficult operations we are involved in?

Afghanistan comes to mind. In some regions, the international staff can only move between their offices and their guesthouses. Massive protective measures have been taken, including building barriers to protect staff from even opportunistic attacks.

The next would be Sudan. We have large numbers of staff in both operations.... There are 570 staff working for UNHCR in the Sudan. That is our biggest operation in terms of staff exposure. We, working with the medical services, give first-aid training to staff in Sudan. It's very important - simple things like protection against malaria complement core security measures. Those kinds of little things are critical to the well-being of the staff.

The threat level is higher in Afghanistan because of suicide bomb attacks. In Sudan, the main danger is carjacking and temporary abductions. Other danger areas include the Middle East.

How do you decide when it is too dangerous to continue working?

It's a serious dilemma. The security is there to enable operations ... there is a lot of tension when we declare that we should no longer go to a place ... as far as I know, there are only two countries in the world that are rated by the UN as Security Phase Five, which means the UN won't go there.

Iraq is one. We have local staff that are working by themselves and giving us reports, because obviously you still have a population that is in need. Even if you are meeting the needs of less than 10 percent of the population, you still have the satisfaction of knowing that you might be keeping people alive.

Somalia is another. A decision was taken [last year] that the UN should try to redeploy into Somalia. The reason why we have not done so is because of the war that is going on.

It is very difficult for the UN security system and the UNHCR to say don't go - not just for political reasons, but also because we are a protection agency. Protection is needed where there is the most insecurity - that is the paradox of our existence and our mandate. The very people that we are meant to protect are the ones that are running away from insecurity, and you have to be there.

To get round this, we use remote management with the national staff or we reduce exposure in certain areas. Basically ... you rotate your staff from one place where there is heat to the next [where it is calm].

Have you enjoyed handling the security portfolio?

I came with a lot of trepidation and fear, a lot of anxiety, but it has been a very gratifying time.... I was surprised to be selected. It has been a big learning curve.... There was consternation [at first] when an operations person was given this job and somebody who did not have any background in military or police work.

It was a huge learning curve for me because there were so many things that I took for granted as a staff member and there were times I believed that security was there only to hem you in.... I learnt it is really not that. Security is trying to tell you to be careful. When you want to move from point A to point Z, there are so many things that could happen. Even if you're not working for the UN, if you're going to cross the road you also have to look left and look right. And basically this is what this function is telling you to do, that when you want to go to a camp, take some preparations. You assess everything ... and where you have genuine difficulties, you can turn to a security expert.