Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Review of UNHCR Activities in Tajikistan


Review of UNHCR Activities in Tajikistan

1 September 1994


The operation in Tajikistan has managed to successfully incorporate many of the approaches UNHCR is trying to adopt in its operations throughout the world. UNHCR's response to the displacement was quick and from the outset directed towards the most likely solution, in this instance a return home.

As the operation developed, the extent to which UNHCR was accepted by the government helped the organization assume a larger political and mediating role than is normally the case. UNHCR's role was undoubtably facilitated by both its effective operational approach and its unwillingness to make artificial distinction between those who had fled their home for other parts of Tajikistan and those who had crossed the border into Afghanistan.

One of the most progressive elements of the operation was UNHCR's efforts to prevent returnees from being forced out of their communities. In many cases this was accomplished through a combination of presence, mediation, and traditional protection efforts. Although such efforts have frequently been depicted as prevention, this description may somewhat overstate relatively localized and limited protection efforts undertaken after a war.

By providing material assistance in the form of a shelter programme, UNHCR was able to substantially increase its influence and facilitate its efforts to mediate and protect. Unfortunately, donor reluctance to fully fund the ambitious shelter programme may limit the contribution UNHCR is able to make to rehabilitation, and somewhat undermine the credibility the organization has so effectively established.

At least initially, the United Nations response was characterized by an integrated approach involving the political, peacekeeping, and humanitarian element of the UN system.

One of the major shortcomings in the international communities' response has been the United Nations' inability to develop an integrated approach at the operational level. As a consequence, UNHCR had been compelled to assume a much larger share of the operations than originally anticipated or desired.

UNHCR should attempt to impress upon the international community the importance of maintaining a stabilizing presence that can continue to reconciliate and assist in protecting people in their own country. It is imperative that inadequate programme funding does not accelerate the process more than is warranted. UNHCR must make every effort to identify or create a sustainable alternative to its presence.

The absence of an integrated response that could promote a smooth transition to development and facilitate UNHCR's withdrawal continues to plague the operation. Faced with a lack of financial support and an absence of partners who can assume many of the tasks now being carried out by UNHCR, the organization has found itself unable to disengage.


Following independence ethnic and political tension in Tajikistan grew until finally erupting into the most violent of the post-Soviet conflicts. Although estimates of the number of persons who lost their lives or were forced from their houses varied greatly, between 20 and 40 thousand persons are believed to have been killed and nearly half a million were displaced. throughout the poorest and least developed of all former Soviet republics.

Most of those who fled their communities sought safety in other parts of Tajikistan during the last months of 1992. Some 60,000 persons, however, sought asylum in Northern Afghanistan where they were assisted by UNHCR. An additional 80,000 were left massed along the border with Afghanistan unable to cross the icy waters of the Amu Darya river.

Before the hostilities had ceased, the Secretary-General despatched a joint United Nations mission to Tajikistan to mediate in the conflict and to identify the most vulnerable people requiring assistance. UNHCR's participation in the November 1992 joint mission led to a UNHCR emergency team being sent to Tajikistan in January. The mission went inside Tajikistan and began negotiations that would lead to the voluntary repatriation of those who had fled.

Working in conjunction with staff from the UN Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA) and the UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO), UNHCR's objectives were soon expanded to include preventing further forced displacements and providing assistance to both internally displaced persons and returning refugees.Shortly after the war came to an end, large numbers of people began to return home spontaneously. Most of the returnees were persons who had been internally displaced, but nearly 15,000 persons who had crossed into Afghanistan also returned to their communities in the first three months after the war's end. By March 1993 Tajikistan's borders had been closed, putting spontaneous repatriation to an end.

Instead, UNHCR began an organized programme of repatriation from Afghanistan.

Organized repatriations from Afghanistan started off slowly, with between 50-150 persons returning weekly by raft or train. Repatriation reached a peak of 300-400 per week during the Spring of 1994, but by mid 1994 had once again begun to tail off.

To assist in repatriation and rehabilitation efforts, as well as to facilitate a protection presence, UNHCR launched a shelter programme aimed at rebuilding the roofs of some 17,000 homes destroyed during the civil war. In the absence of NGOs, UNHCR's field staff assumed primary responsibility for the logistics and distribution activities associated with the roof rebuilding programme.

To fund its operation, UNHCR launched a joint appeal with other agencies of the UN system which were expected to participate in the emergency relief operation and subsequent rehabilitation and development efforts. Although all agencies found it difficult to raise funds for their planned activities, by mid 1993 UNHCR had nevertheless managed to raise US$6.5 million of the US$14.9million required to implement its operation.

To carry out protection and assistance activities UNHCR was obliged to build up a substantial presence. By mid 1994, UNHCR had engaged over 50 staff in Tajikistan, including a dozen professions, most of whom were short term personnel new to UNHCR.

In comparison with its partners, UNHCR has maintained the largest and most active United Nations presence in Tajikistan. Consequently other agencies, in particular WFP, WHO, UNICEF, and IOM, have established small office in Dushamba?, but have not had sufficient staff or resources to carry out substantial programmes. DHA was not present, but asked UNHCR if its Chief of Mission could also serve as the Operation's Humanitarian Coordinator. ICRC, which was the first agency to begin operations, was initially very active in Tajikistan but has gradually scaled down its operation as conditions improved.

As of September 1994 well over 90% of the internally displaced had returned home and an estimated 35- 40,000 of those who had fled to Afghanistan had also gone back to their communities leaving some 20,000 in two camps. UNHCR now expects most refugees in Afghanistan to return home, but will try to help an estimated four to five thousand who do not wish to return to Tajikistan, but to integrate into Afghanistan.



UNHCR's activities in Tajikistan have generated widespread interest and discussion within UNHCR. Much of the interest is undoubtedly due to the extent to which the operation encapsulates so many of the operational approaches UNHCR is striving to adopt in its activities throughout the world. Of added interest is the region in which the operation takes place, an area both new to UNHCR and of growing importance.

In general, operational activities carried out in Tajikistan are not entirely new or dissimilar to activities found in UNHCR operations elsewhere. Nevertheless, the significance assumed by some of the operation's principal activities makes the operation unique. These activities undoubtedly contributed to its success.

Aside from the quite special context of the former Soviet Union, and UNHCR's increasingly accepted practice of addressing the needs of the non-refugee population, the operation can be characterized by a number of significant features. First, and perhaps most significant, is the large political and mediating role UNHCR has had.


UNHCR has been able to gain the government's confidence and respect in a manner that has made UNHCR much more influential than in most country situations. The importance of its role has permitted UNHCR to participate in peace talks with the government and its opposition. It also added to UNHCR making a more significant contribution to peace and general stabilization of the country than is customary.

The Tajikistan government's acceptance of UNHCR has permitted the OCM to extend the coverage of protection activities to national groups, thus allowing UNHCR to work much as it would in a country of asylum. This has enabled UNHCR to place greater emphasis on human rights issues without regard to traditional status distinctions. UNHCR's influence and acceptance have also allowed UNHCR to systematically and effectively follow-up on protection needs and in many cases take action before more serious problems have developed.

UNHCR's relatively unconventional role and acceptance have to a large extent been a consequence of the government's lack of experience, understanding, and expectations regarding the international community. Undoubtedly contributing to the government's acceptance is UNHCR's early presence and the effectiveness of the OCM.


While many aspects of the operation may be somewhat exceptional, one element of the operation that has become increasingly common in recent years is the extent to which an immediate repatriation was planned at the outset rather than following a more traditional "assist and wait for peace" formula that has characterised refugee operations for decades. Regrettably, the operation also has suffered from the absence of a comprehensive approach that has plagued relief efforts in other parts of the world.

Although UNHCR emphasized the need for an integrated approach involving other components of the UN system at the outset, other agencies have been unable or unwilling to provide sufficient financial or staff resources to help address the root causes of displacement, or help to make the transition from relief to development that would facilitate UNHCR's disengagement. Problems in developing a more comprehensive approach have only been exacerbated by the unwillingness of NGOs to establish a presence until security conditions improved.As seems to be increasingly common, UNHCR went in relatively early and decisively, declared that its involvement would be brief, and called for partners. Unfortunately, as has often been the case, UNHCR's involvement is beginning to appear to be a much longer and more single-handed effort than was anticipated or desired.



There is much discussion about the nature and impact of UNHCR's prevention efforts in Tajikistan as well as thought being given to the extent to which such efforts can be considered a potential model for prevention that might be attempted in other parts of the Soviet Union. Such discussions have generally focused on whether the operation was truly preventive, or better described by more traditional terminology and concept. Although support can be found to justify virtually all descriptions, in many respects, simple characterizations tend to overstate the work carried out or, on the other hand, fail to give sufficient emphasis to the operation's special features.

UNHCR's involvement in Tajikistan began at the peak of the conflict when large-scale population displacement had already taken place, hence international involvement prevented neither the war nor subsequent displacement. Furthermore, those who have witnessed events do not suggest that a limited international presence could have prevented the conflict even if such a presence had existed. Observers note that despite the arrival of the international community no-one has yet been able to significantly address the complex and deeply-rooted causes of the conflict which revolve around ethnic rivalries, scarcity of land and a variety of political, social and economic causes.

Despite the hyperbole involved in describing UNHCR's role, UNHCR has clearly had an important influence in bringing a degree of stability, and social and political security to the South West region of the country where the conflict was most intense. UNHCR's presence has continually demonstrated the international community's concern for peace and respect for the rights of those defeated in the conflict. In doing so, UNHCR has assisted the forces of moderation to exert themselves.


There is unanimous agreement that UNHCR's presence and protection efforts have both facilitated the return of refugees and internally displaced persons and helped ethnic minorities to remain in the region if they chose to. In a very clear and demonstrable way, UNHCR has also assisted hundreds of families to recover homes that had been occupied by others when they fled. In a broader sense, UNHCR's efforts to mediate and calm the situation are viewed by diplomats and regional analysts as having made a clear contribution to stability in the region.

UNHCR's uncommon role and influence have been the consequence of many important factors, but to a large degree result from the extent to which very few countries or organizations have shown an interest in Tajikistan. As a new state, Tajikistan understandably strives for international recognition and support. At the same time, Tajikistan's independence has left it relatively isolated and without the subsidies and markets to which it was accustomed. Internal strife has only added to the country's isolation both within the region and internationally, a problem that is compounded by the government's unwillingness to make the kind of political and market reforms that have brought substantial external support and investment to other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Tajikistan tends to be overlooked for many reasons. Tajikistan lacks the natural resources and economic potential that would interest investors. It is also of minimal geopolitical significance to most potential donors, and its relative development compared to the worlds poorest countries make it a rather low priority to most international organizations.The nature of UNHCR's role contributes to making it a particularly important agency in post-war Tajikistan. UNHCR has helped to quickly bring people back to their homes and undertaken important efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country.


To a government with no previous exposure to international organizations, UNHCR represents the United Nations as well as being perceived as an "official minder" sent by the international community to monitor respect for human rights after the civil war. In order to demonstrate its legitimacy and to secure the assistance required for reconstruction, the government is eager to support the human rights ideals represented by UNHCR.

In short, there is a convergence of governmental and UNHCR aims that seldom occurs to the same extent. The government's acceptance of UNHCR, and the respect it has granted the organization are further strengthened by the perceived impartiality and effectiveness of UNHCR leadership and staff in Tajikistan.


UNHCR's influence has permitted the organization to act forcefully with both local and national authorities. To some extent, it has served as both an international human rights monitor and a communication link within the government by quickly bringing problems that cannot be solved at a local level to the central authorities who then have in turn encouraged regional and local authorities to find solutions.

UNHCR's presence and prompt action have clearly prevented people from being forced out of their communities and averted a deterioration of the situation in the most conflictive regions. Nevertheless, describing such classic protection efforts as prevention tends to elicit sceptical reactions from observers close to the situation. Although there is universal appreciation and recognition of UNHCR's effectiveness and impact, observers tend to feel uncomfortable with the use of the prevention concept in Tajikistan to describe relatively localized and limited efforts undertaken after a war. Many believe that inflating the description of the work carried out in Tajikistan can only further confuse a concept that already puzzles many relief workers.

Staff who are sceptical of the prevention concept point out that in actual fact they are tending more to urgent needs than carrying out the activities normally associated with prevention. Hence many see the concept as simply an overstatement of UNHCR's very effective efforts to protect a returning population.



Protecting returnees was the major aim and the most important success of the operation. Although conditions in Tajikistan were not ideally suited for an early repatriation, through a well formulated protection and assistance operation UNHCR has been able to provide better protection to returnees in Tajikistan than was available for Tajik refugees in Afghanistan.

Repatriation began as a trickle in March 1993, but within three months UNHCR was transporting returnees in large numbers by rail through Uzbekistan, back to the region from which they had come only three months earlier. By mid-1994 UNHCR had helped nearly 22,000 persons return home, largely without incident.

It is difficult to quantify the extent to which UNHCR's stabilizing presence has contributed to peace and an atmosphere of reconciliation that has permitted the return and protection of those forced from their homes. Although there have been many instances of intimidation and harassment, few lives have been lost. More often, returnees have been threatened, forced to work, or in some cases abducted by armed gangs or private militias and later released. Such incidents must, however, be compared to the safety of asylum in Afghanistan where some 30-50 Tajik refugees have been killed.

When serious incidents are reported to UNHCR, staff have taken prompt and frequently successful action to address abuses. Through their efforts staff have demonstrably helped hundreds of returnees to recover occupied homes as well as assisted much larger numbers in securing access to hospitals and schools. In addition, UNHCR's role in protecting returnees and internally displaced persons have undeniably helped avert large-scale movements to the cities as well as forced relocation of IDPs back to their region of origin.


UNHCR's success in providing protection can be attributed to a number of factors. Among the most important are:

  • a convergence of government and UNHCR aims in safely moving people back to their original homes;
  • the eagerness of returnees to go home and, in the case of returning refugees, the relatively difficult conditions they faced in the country of asylum; and
  • the style of UNHCR's operation and the effectiveness of its staff.

The government recognised from the outset that a quick return of refugees and displaced persons would strengthen its position. Refugees provided a potential fighting force that could plague the government for years. The presence of Tajik refugees in Afghanistan also helped the opposition's efforts to both hinder and contest elections. The opposition was able to insist that there were still large numbers of Tajiks outside the country who should also be part of any electoral process. Furthermore, with seriously deteriorating economic conditions in Tajikistan, the Government desperately required the labour force provided by returnees to harvest the country's economically essential cotton crop.

The successful return of the internally displaced and refugees was undoubtedly facilitated by the desire of those who had fled to return home. Most persons who had left their communities had not done so voluntarily but had been forced out by ethnic cleansing during the conflict.

Harsh living conditions in Afghanistan combined with forced recruitment by the Afghan Mujahedin made return an even more attractive alternative for refugees in Afghanistan. As has frequently been pointed out, Afghanistan is simply not a country that can provide safe asylum.


Some of the operation's success must be attributed to the quick establishment of a highly mobile and field-oriented operation. The early arrival of a well-equipped team with radios and vehicles meant that UNHCR was able to quickly assess the situation and begin operations.

A quickly functional presence allowed UNHCR to move into the areas where refugees would eventually return, start making contacts with local authorities, get to know the situation first hand, and begin to understand how to work. In contrast, other parts of the UN system which did not have the same transport and communication capabilities were obliged to cling to Dushanbe. As a consequence, they often found themselves overly dependant on information from officials in central government who had little authority immediately after the war and were not particularly well informed, or in many cases had an interest in misrepresenting the situation.

Combining a large and mobile team in the field with the OCM's presence in Dushanbe provided UNHCR with a structure that better reflects the distribution of power in the country than the capital city-oriented structures of other organizations. Furthermore, UNHCR's field structure has effectively enabled it to serve as a channel of communication between the central and local authorities.

Although there was little question of repatriation when UNHCR first arrived, staff required some time to learn how to work in such a significantly different social and economic context. In addition, UNHCR's early and highly visible presence was recognised and appreciated by both the general population and the authorities. Many believe that it was precisely this presence and the continuity provided by retaining the same Chief of Mission throughout the operation that contributed to UNHCR being able to build a high degree of confidence with the authorities and obtain guarantees for a safe return.


The operation's success is in some part due to UNHCR's unwillingness to make artificial distinctions between the returning categories of persons returning home. During the civil war, people fled in all directions. Some fled to remote areas, others crossed or massed along the border with Afghanistan. In such circumstances, the difference between refugees and the internally displaced is purely circumstantial, and could not justify differential treatment. Furthermore, the Tajik Government in both declarations, and later in texts of law enacted to protect the returning populations, made no distinction between returning refugees and persons who had been internally displaced.

Much credit must go to staff who have served in Tajikistan. In general, the operation has been staffed by an exceptional team, many of whom were recruited primarily for their language skills. Staff members' ability to speak one of the local languages has made them well-tuned to the mentality and culture and has significantly contributed to their effectiveness. Staff have impressed donor officials and agency personnel with their courage, their persistence and approach to the work. The ability of all field staff to speak one of the local languages and their knowledge of the areas in which they workl have helped them to integrate and develop personal relations with the authorities and returnee communities. Their skills have also enabled them to understand as well as inspire the confidence that brings people together.

Staff performance is even more remarkable in view of their relatively limited UNHCR experience and the harsh field conditions. UNHCR has clearly been viewed as the most capable organization and has ultimately determined the way in which the United Nations is perceived by the Government. New organizations or embassies needing advice or assistance inevitably sought guidance from UNHCR.


Many situational factors, although less significant, also contributed to both the repatriation and the protection of returnees. UNHCR has been able to facilitate communication links between persons who have already returned and refugees in Afghanistan, thus enabling refugees to obtain information as to whether it would be safe to return home. Staff have been able to build confidence in repatriation through exchanges of letters, visits and in some cases the limited use of radio links. Such efforts have been even more effective than in most such situations due to the high literacy level of the general population, which is reported to be over ninety percent.

The existence of civil laws has also played a role in protection efforts. Although laws tend to be somewhat erratically enforced, the legal system nevertheless functions relatively well compared to most countries in which UNHCR works. Thus, rather than being obliged to strike the kind of protection deals or arrangements that UNHCR staff often are forced to make with local authorities, UNHCR has been able to help returnees redress cases of persecution and lost property through the legal sytem.

UNHCR's operation in Tajikistan has once again demonstrated how a proactive protection effort can contribute to making conditions more conducive to repatriation. The operation should be given substantial credit for successfully providing protection during the repatriation and contributing to national reconciliation. Perhaps least apparent is the extent to which an emphasis on early repatriation has reduced the anxious and unproductive time the refugees would have spent languishing in refugee camps and the considerable reduction in care and maintenance expenditures brought about by this emphasis.


The shelter programme undertaken by UNHCR has significantly increased UNHCR's importance and credibility and as a consequence greatly enhanced its protection activities. Without being seen as bringing a tangible improvement to rehabilitation efforts, staff would have found it extremely difficult to gain the acceptance and support required to effectively carry out protection activities. Providing material assistance was particularly important in gaining influence with local authorities.

UNHCR had originally expected to help in the reconstruction of 17,000 homes by providing roof-rebuilding materials, consisting of timber, asbestos, roofing sheets, nails and tools. UNHCR had expected the programme to be completed by mid-1994. However, materials had been provided for only 7,000 returnee homes.

The shelter programme has been repeatedly delayed but repatriation has also been slower than anticipated. Staff now hope to provide roofing materials for an additional 5000 to 10,000 homes by year-end if sufficient funds are available.

The shelter programme has been effective in providing a strong incentive for refugees to return home and has to some extent facilitated the work of other United Nations and non-governmental organizations by successfully establishing a pattern of work. Through the programme UNHCR has been able to create a perception among government officials that UN operations are effective and worth supporting. Consequently, the government has often made resources available in support of UNHCR operations, which has helped accomplish the work at a lower-cost, a practice that development organizations expect to benefit from in the future.

There is now some concern among agencies that all international organizations will lose a degree of credibility if the housing programme cannot be completed as anticipated. Although UNHCR has never promised that it would help rebuild the houses of all those returning home, UNHCR's assistance has been implied and is certainly expected.

The operation in Tajikistan provides some useful operational lessons in carrying out assistance in a newly independent state that was part of the former Soviet Union as well as lessons in trying to supply the operation from the region. The almost total absence of NGOs and problems in recruiting local staff have meant that UNHCR's international staff have been obliged to implement much of the assistance themselves. This has increased administrative costs and reduced the time that staf could devote to higher priority but more abstract protection and mediation efforts.

Normally, UNHCR would try to use as many local staff as possible, particularly if NGOs were not available. At the outset of the operation, however, it was very difficult for an international organization to recruit qualified local staff who were viewed as politically neutral and were willing to move outside Dushanbe to the rural areas where UNHCR operates. Furthermore, although the national labour force is relatively well educated and skilled, local staff often require more training in Western systems, management approaches and in using equipment such as computers.

Significantly, lower prices and the proximity of suppliers initially attracted staff to procuring shelter materials in the region. UNHCR had, however, great difficulty in finding reliable suppliers. In the worst cases, suppliers simply disappeared before delivering promised materials. Production delays and a host of problems with transport and customs, along with delivery shortages and damaged materials, make regional procurement a formidable challenge. However, when staff succeed, huge savings are often achieved.

UNHCR is still feeling its way through procurement in the former Soviet Union, but With some experience, staff now recognise that there are major problems associated with procurement in the region. It is evident that the, purchase and transport of materials cannot simply be arranged with the supplier as is normally the case in most UNHCR purchases. In order to be successful, normal procurement practices will need to be modified, and much more time will have to be invested in overseeing production at the factory and supervising shipments.

The common difficulties being faced by all procurement staff working in the former Soviet Union have led many to conclude that a new, regionally-oriented effort will be required. Among the suggestions being made is that all UNHCR offices in the former Soviet Union combine efforts in identifying and exchanging information on reliable suppliers and that UNHCR attempts to modify its procurement practices for the region.

In adapting relief and development programmes which are based on experience gained in the developing world to the former Soviet Union, all organizations are encountering new problems. Simple, lower-technology solutions are often resisted by the government and resented by project recipients. In trying to implement its house reconstruction programme, for example, UNHCR found that the government was unwilling to reconstruct houses with much less expensive flat mud-roofs that were once used in Tajikistan and are still extensively used in neighbouring Afghanistan.

International agencies generally have a quite different sense of priorities than government officials which are reluctant to follow the normal approaches used by relief and development agencies. In most instances, government authorities want only to be provided with money and the latest equipment to solve whatever problem they are facing.

Despite situational constraints, more careful planning and greater use of technical expertise would have improved UNHCR's shelter programme. Although much has been learnt through trial and error, more conservative specifications at the outset by technical staff would have permitted the reconstruction of considerably more houses at the same cost.

The original roof design, for example, was overly generous. Original roof specifications called for approximately four cubic metres of wood. With experience, staff learnt they could reduce the amount of wood supplied to three and a half and eventually to below three cubic metres. Furthermore, delays in the programme can also be attributed to providing Russian saw-mills with western timber dimensions which required the mills to continually make adjustments before cutting timber to the sizes ordered by UNHCR.

Rehabilitation assistance has been important in encouraging repatriation and in facilitating the proection of those who have returned. It is increasingly clear, however, that UNHCR was overly optimistic in both its hopes to raise funds for the reconstruction of nearly 20,000 homes, and in its plans to supply the operation from the region. In the future, more effort should be devoted to all aspects of planning, including the feasibility of securing both the financial and material resources required to complete a programme.


The UN's initial aim of providing an integrated response that would address a range of needs as well as provide a smooth transition to development has never taken the shape that was originally envisaged. UNHCR in particular was quite adamant in its desire to work within an integrated approach that included a political framework rather than simply being part of a consolidated appeal for funds. Regrettably, however, other organizations have neither been able to obtain financial support for operations nor have they been able to mount the kind of emergency response that was required.

The notion of having an integrated approach was first advanced by a joint political and humanitarian mission despatched by the Secretary General in October 1992. The mission's participants hoped they could prevent further displacement within Tajikistan and to neighbouring countries by combining peace-keeping efforts with assistance to the internally displaced. In proposing that the main UN agencies undertake an integrated humanitarian effort, the mission was hopeful that a successful precedent for joint prevention and assistance actions could be created.

While the agencies generally pursued the formal coordination outlined in the joint plan, an integrated approach never materialized at the operational level. Traditional UN partners such as UNDP, UNICEF, and WHO deployed only a few staff or consultants who continued to assess potential activities for their agencies. UNDPA was able to play an important political role, but in general the burden for organizing and carrying out operational activities in the field has fallen almost exclusively on UNHCR and ICRC. Having already launched its operation in December 1992, ICRC was able to facilitate UNHCR's initial deployment. Furthermore, through close cooperation and a common approach that included information-sharing and joint efforts to bring pressure to bear on local commanders and central authorities, the two organizations were able to effectively complement and reinforce one another.

DHA took the lead role in the preliminary assessment and planning phases. However, it did not establish a presence in Dushanbe, and instead opted to delegate coordinating responsibilities to UNHCR. UNHCR was initially somewhat reluctant to have its Chief of Mission assume the DHA's role of humanitarian coordinator. It is now evident, however, that UNHCR's operation in Tajikistan has benefited greatly from the dual role. The role of humanitarian coordinator has given the Chief of Mission more authority than he would have had in only representing UNHCR as the de facto lead agency.

As the humanitarian coordinator the Chief of Mission was able to pull together UN and NGO agencies in a manner welcomed by the agencies themselves, and helped to ensure that the agencies' operations did not go in completely different and uncoordinated directions. Perhaps the most significant disadvantage in having the UNHCR Chief of Mission also serve as the DHA humanitarian coordinator is that it has tended to prolong the focus of humanitarian and developments agencies on returnees after such persons have ceased to be the category of the population with the greatest needs. Some observers also believe that such a large UNHCR influence may have also reduced the incentive for other UN organizations to become involved.

The absence of NGOs which have proven to be UNHCR's most dependable partners, was both unexpected and disappointing. Although NGOs funded by the operation's donor are now beginning to arrive in large numbers, security concerns and the absence of European funding have meant that UNHCR has essentially had only a relatively small MSF Belgium team to work with since the operation's conception.

UNDPA has played a central role in Tajikistan though its involvement in a peace process that has brought together the Government and the opposition. In a supporting role, UNHCR has been able to contribute to these efforts by chairing the Commission on Refugees which was created at the first talks. In initially concentrating on displacement issues, the government and the opposition were able to discuss an issue which they could both agree upon. To some extent, chairing the Commission also legitimized UNHCR field operations that extended beyond its mandate.

The two principal foreign influences in Tajikistan - the Russian and US embassy's - have continually smoothed the operation's path. Both the Russian government and US government, which has funded most of UNHCR's operations, share common interests in stabilizing the situation in Tajikistan, a goal towards which UNHCR has been able to contribute. Consequently, both governments have played crucial roles in influencing the Tajikistan authorities to support UNHCR's protection and mediation efforts. The fact that UNHCR shares the same key building with the Russian and US embassies does not escape anyone's attention.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in Tajikistan is the UN's inability to mount a genuinely system-wide response despite the initial vision and planning of those representing various organizations at the outset. Instead of setting an important precedent for an integrated approach, the operation has only contributed to existing scepticism regarding the prospects for the UN system to mount preventive effort and UNHCR's ability to serve as a catalyst in sparking such efforts. Furthermore, the relatively small role being played by development agencies as UNHCR begins to scale-down its activities once again raises doubts about the potential to make the smooth transition from relief to development that has been so often theorized.

Structured and sustained coordination practice does not merely pertain to relations with external counterparts, but should also be sought within UNHCR. The operation in Tajikistan, which included repatriation, demonstrated once more the need to treat cross border movements in a comprehensive manner. Officials from major donor countries and staff members have equally observed that UNHCR's objectives with regard to the repatriation of Tajik refugees from Afghanistan seemed to diverge from one side to the border to the other. A quick repatriation was sought by UNHCR Afghanistan, while staff in Dushanbe concerned by unsettled conditions in Tajikistan were in favour of smaller movements spread over a longer period of time. Better coordination, and a clear vision and policy with regard to the situation in the region would have resulted in more effective programme implementation. This could have also yielded more realistic expectations for all parties involved and would have facilitated UNHCR's reintegration efforts.


The lack of financial support for the operation may oblige UNHCR to scale-down its shelter programme and protection activities regardless of the need for a continued presence. Despite donors' high regard for the operation, raising funds to support it has been much more difficult than anticipated. As of mid-1994 donors had been only willing to provide US$ 6.5 million of the nearly US$ 14.9 million required to complete the projected rehabilitation and protection activities thus leaving the operation with a shortfall of some US$ 8.4 million.

There is a general recognition that UNHCR should hand over activities to another organization and should begin scaling down its operation. With the repatriation nearly complete and the Khatlon region increasingly stable, UNHCR's role has, to a large extent, shifted more to Human Resources monitoring, a function that should be carried out by another organization or the government itself.

Terminating the shelter programme and handing protection monitoring activities over to the government or another organization cannot be done without undesirable consequences; without undermining returnee protection and stability in the Khatlon region and to some extent damaging the credibility of the United Nations in Tajikistan.

Protection should, of course, be carried out by national authorities. However, in view of the extent to which the local authorities, such as the police, consist of the dominant ethnic groups, there is widespread agreement that some international oversight would do much to preserve the level of protection and respect for Human Resources that UNHCR has been able to achieve.

Despite the relatively stable security climate achieved in Khatlon Province, protection needs are likely to grow in the near future. Refugees who have hesitated till now to repatriate from Afghanistan are viewed with growing suspicion by the Tajiks, who suspect this portion of the population of having direct links with opposition fighters.

Furthermore, worsening security conditions throughout Tajikistan make hopes for a quick disengagement somewhat unrealistic. Efforts to scale down are only complicated by the rapid deterioration of economic conditions in the country which persistently hamper the reintegration of those who have most recently returned and exacerbate community tensions.

Handing over assistance activities would not be difficult. Both IRC and SCF that have only recently begun developing their own reconstruction efforts, would be well qualified to take over the shelter programme. Unfortunately the overheads and ???doubtrente structures required by the agency would, in the short term, possibly only increase the cost of a programme which is soon to be completed.

Identifying an organization able to carry out the human resources or protection monitoring role now carried out by UNHCR is a more difficult undertaking.

NGOs do not have the same influence as a UN organization such as UNHCR enjoys with the government. On the other hand, no other UN agency active in Tajikistan has the operational capability required.

A number of hand-over alternatives have been considered but none appear capable of providing the current standard or protection. The political branch of the UN could carry out monitoring through military observers. Certainly, the current observer team of two capital-based staff could be expanded to include personnel who speak one of the national languages.

There is concern, however, UN MOT staff would be inclined to recruit advisors to be placed in the central administrative structures rather than ensuring the constant presence that is needed in the field to prevent and immediately address protection problems.

UNHCR would probably find CSCE's approach to the work more suitable. There is concern, however, that it would take CSCE sometime to actually reach a decision to assume the UNHCR's monitoring table and despatch teams. In order to speed up the handover, UNHCR has considered handing over its field office infrastructure to CSCE.

Another scaling down alternative under consideration is a reduced, but more mobile, UNHCR presence combined with NGO monitoring. This alternative foresees UNHCR handing over assistance-related responsibilities to NGOs and the identification of village monitors who would report incidents to roving protection officers. NGOs, who rely heavily on large numbers of local staff for implementing, could help in organizing local monitors. Although there has always been concern that ethnic tension would preclude the use of nationals in human resources monitoring, there is a growing sense that changing conditions, the presence of large number of NGO staff in the field, make this approach worth reassessing.

Despite funding difficulties and problems associated with finding partners who can assume protection functions, it is evident that the operation needs to progress to a new stage.

Changing needs in Tajikistan require an overall shift in international attention from returnee to broader needs combined with an increase in metation and economic development.

The reluctance of many traditional donors to provide significant financial support for an approach which has been advanced as a model for the future is somewhat disconcerting.

Through protection and a stabilizing presence in the country of origin, UNHCR's approach has contributed to a rapid and cost effective solution. As a consequence, care and maintenance costs in Afghanistan have undoubtedly been reduced by many millions of dollars.

There is general agreement with the view advanced by a European Ambassador posted to neighbouring Uzbekistan that the operation's costs have been "peanuts" compared to its achievements. Nevertheless, neither UNHCR nor the principal funder - the US government - in soliciting significant funding from other regular western donors, have been successful. It is evident that Central Asia and more specifically Tajikistan are of less interest to most of UNHCR's donors than areas of the former Soviet Union closer to Europe such as the Caucasus. In fact, other than the US, no traditional UNHCR donor has an Embassy in Tajikistan. Furthermore, unlike many other emerging nations of the former Soviet Union such as Armenia or Georgia, there are no large numbers of ethnic Tajiks in donor countries who can lobby for support.

Another major reason for the modest funding provided to the operation is that the type of "prevention" and rehabilitation activities carried out in Tajikistan are simply not as compelling as other types of refugee need and are not given the same priority by donors. While donors seem convinced that refugees' needs must be met, they don't appear to have the same commitment to people who have been internally displaced. As one staff member observed, donors often seem reluctant to provide funds unless people flow across a border.

While the absence of financial support for such a successful operation is discouraging, donors have pointed out that the operation probably would have received better support at another time when global funding demands are not so high.

Difficult economic conditions in donor countries combined with the already existing burden of providing relief to the former Yugoslavia, and the unprecedented number of emergency demands have weighed heavily on all donors.

While there has been much talk of securing non-refugee funds set aside for former Soviet Union, no-one has yet discovered how to access what is sometimes described as a hidden pot of gold.

It would be unfortunate if inadequate programme funding ??accelerated/exacerbated the process more than is warranted. Handing over programme activities and disengaging require caution both in terms of the actual viability of arrangements selected and in terms of the signals the beneficiaries and the authorities could derive.

Although changing conditions in Tajikistan will undoubtedly play a large role in the UNHCR disengagement, it is essential that UNHCR HQ also does what it can to support a steady, but gradual transition that ensures that the protection needs of the returnee population are met, and that the stability that has been achieved through UNHCR's presence is maintained.

Most European donors have been somewhat reluctant to provide significant financial support for UNHCR's activities in Tajikistan, despite their general agreement with the view advanced by an Ambassador posted to neighbouring Uzbekistan that the operation's costs have been "peanuts" compared to its achievements. Efforts of the key funder to solicit funds from other regular western donors have not been successful. One of the principal reasons cited is that Central Asia and more specifically Tajikistan are of less interest to them than areas of the former Soviet Union closer to Europe such as the Caucasus. Furthermore, unlike for nations such as Armenia or Georgia there are not large numbers of ethnic Tajiks in western countries who can lobby for support.

Another major reason for low funding is that the type of activities carried out in Tajikistan do not command immediate support. There is widespread agreement that prevention will always lose out to more compelling needs. Although there is much discussion of prevention, donors still do not grant it the same priority as to other refugee needs. As one staff member observed: donors often seem unwilling to provide funds unless people flow across a border. While donors seemed convinced that refugees needs must be met, the same commitment is not shown in relation to internally displaced persons or returnee rehabilitation activities.

Finally, the timing is not favourable. Difficult economic conditions in potential donor countries combined with the already existing burden of providing relief to the former Yugoslavia, and the unprecedented number of emergency demands have weighed heavily on all donors.

There are a number of lesser reasons given for weak financial support, such as:

  • delays in the shelter programme that hurt the operation's credibility;
  • the marginality of the rate of return on the funds provided for the operation;
  • the expectation of some that the operation could be funded at a later time, when global funding demands are not so high;
  • the absence of a precedent in funding such operations; and
  • the lack of donors' presence in Tajikistan where of all the key donors only the US Government has established an embassy.

While there has been much talk of securing non-refugee funds set aside for former Soviet Union no-one has discovered how to access what is sometimes described as a hidden pot of gold. Alternatively, co-opting NGOs may help fund the activities that UNHCR has begun, but so far the governments which have invited them in have not realized fully their promises of support. Perhaps as it is often pointed out Tajikistan is simply too far away.

In the short-term, a shortfall in the funding of UNHCR activities is likely to have a serious impact on the organization's ability to carry out its assistance and protection activities in Tajikistan. It also can undo previous achievements such as the stabilization of Khatlon Province, and eventually lead to renewed population displacements.

Because much of UNHCR's influence with the authorities has been gained through its demonstrated ability to provide concrete solutions to rehabilitation problems in the south, the failure to fulfil Government and returnees' expectations may well erode the organization's credibility. This would hamper its ability to ensure the protection of returnees, and as emphasized by both UNHCR staff and key donor officials in Dushanbe, may lead to renewed instability and ethnic strife in the south of the country.

Furthermore, the Government's unwillingness to include the opposition in the political process will result in increased rebel activities. Finally, the continuing deterioration of the socio-economic conditions in the country will probably hamper the reintegration of those most recently returned and exacerbate tensions.

The uncertainty of the security conditions in the south as well as, more recently, in other areas of Tajikistan precluded any hopes for a quick disengagement of UNHCR. This is echoed by major donor governments who, while encouraging NGOs to undertake assistance activities, wish UNHCR to remain in its stabilizing role. Thus, a scale-down of the operation requires a careful assessment of viable alternatives both in assistance and in protection.

On the assumption that continued funding is secured for assistance activities, the implementation of the shelter programme and of other ongoing and projected activities could be taken over by international NGOs. Initially hesistant in light of the poor security conditions, NGOs are now eager to start work in Tajikistan within the framework defined by UNHCR. In the first part of this year, the OCM in Dushanbe has held extensive discussions with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Save the Children Federation (SCF) who are in the process of developing their own programmes. Both organizations benefit or expect to benefit from various sources of funding for self-help programmes. They are also confident in their capacity to implement UNHCR-projected activities. At present, two IRC staff are deployed in secondment to UNHCR field offices with responsibility for shelter material distribution. As for SCF, it is engaged in reconstruction activities that have required the development of logistics management capabilities comparable to those of UNHCR.

A substantial involvement of international NGOs will also allow the international community to address longer-term development needs and bring lasting stabilization to Tajikistan. With most of the displaced returned to their villages, assistance needs are now shifting from emergency relief to self-sufficiency. A timely response at the community level would contribute to restoring the minimum socio-economic conditions required to avert chaos. Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) are some of the means to be considered by NGOs whose vocations match developmental needs better than UNHCR's.

Ideally monitoring should be undertaken by joint bodies comprising government and returnee representatives who would also follow-up on protection problems. However, given that traditional ethnic cleavages are also reflected in the staffing of local authorities and the police being staffed with the dominant ethnic group, this alternative may not be a viable one.

Monitoring by the political branch of the UN or by the CSCE may be more realistic. However, neither UNMOT nor the CSCE delegation in Tajikistan has at present the capability to deploy monitoring teams in the field. Furthermore, UNMOT would be inclined to recruit advisors to be placed in the central administrative structures rather than ensuring the constant presence that is needed in the field to prevent and immediately address protection problems. CSCE's approach may be closer to current field deployment practice, but the lead time for that organization to reach a decision and actually despatch teams is likely to be long. A way to shorten it, however, could be to hand them over UNHCR equipment and the infrastructures established for the field offices.

Another alternative to UNHCR's present operational structure in Tajikistan could aim at reducing international field teams while increasing their mobility. This would require relieving staff from their assistance-related responsibilities through hand-over to NGOs. As is already done in the southern Shartuz and Kobodion areas, roving protection officers could organize networks of village representatives who would report incidents to be taken up and followed up by UNHCR as appropriate. In addition since international NGOs are likely to rely largely on local staff and the beneficiaries themselves, they could help with the organization of a base of local monitors. Representatives of SCF that UNHCR monitors could make use of their extensive network of food-for-work brigades. While in the past most field officers felt that ethnic tensions within villages did not permit the open use of local monitors, improved security conditions make this now worth reassessing.

Finally, while the role of Humanitarian Coordinator has significantly facilitated UNHCR's operations until now, it has corresponded with a period when most of the humanitarian needs in Tajikistan matched UNHCR's traditional capabilities. In the current transition from emergency to a more stable environment, assistance needs also change towards self-sufficiency and short-term development, and could be better answered by other agencies.

While changing conditions in Tajikistan will determine the necessary re-direction of the role of UNHCR, inadequate programme funding may accelerate the process more than is warranted. The equation to present to the major donors is that funding must flow in at a level where the basic protection of the returned populations can be ensured. Short of that level, the stabilization achieved in the country may crumble with the foreseable consequence of renewed displacements within and out of Tajikistan. With commensurate financial support, NGOs could take over many of the assistance activities presently carried on by UNHCR, and allow for the Organization to rationalize and scale down its field presence. Nevertheless, handing over programme activities and disengaging require extreme caution both in terms of the actual viability of alternative arrangements and in terms of the dubious signals the beneficiaries and the authorities could derive from such moves.