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All you need to know in an emergency – in the palm of your hand

Bangladesh. New Rohingya arrivals at transit centre

All you need to know in an emergency – in the palm of your hand

Available online as an app, UNHCR's Emergency Handbook gives hands-on guidance to humanitarians providing life-saving assistance.
25 September 2018
UNHCR staff member Maria del Pilar Pena assists Rohingya refugees as they arrive at a transit centre near Anjuman Para, Bangladesh, October 2017.

Thousands of children, women and men are streaming across an international border escaping war or persecution. You are the aid worker on the frontline. What do you do?

Available online as an app, UNHCR’s Emergency Handbook gives hands-on guidance to humanitarians in all areas of life-saving assistance from registering refugees, to providing shelter, food, sanitation and more.

The Handbook, which draws on the UN Refugee Agency’s over 60 years of operational experience, works on all electronic platforms. Once downloaded to a mobile, it even works offline for use in remote areas. It is now also available in Arabic, French and Spanish.

Managing the platform is Alvin Gonzaga, Senior Emergency Policy Officer in UNHCR’s Division of Emergency, Security and Supply. He spoke to Senior External Relations Officer Roland Schönbauer about it.

In simple terms, what is the Emergency Handbook?

Responding to an emergency, every second counts. The Handbook is a web-based how-to guide for humanitarian workers, from volunteers to UNHCR colleagues that rush to save the lives of refugees and internally displaced people in an emergency.

It offers easy-to-read guidance with simple tools and checklists, ranging from a packing list for emergency missions to key steps in protecting and assisting people with disabilities or survivors of sexual or gender-based violence. It gives you a quick reference on standards, indicators and key steps for camps and urban environments.

Why online, and why all the languages?

When you rush to a border area, you are not going to carry a thick book with you, and you may not get the expert you need in the office on the phone. This is when the Emergency Handbook makes a difference. Downloaded to your phone, it even works in a forest off the beaten track where desperate people may be stranded.

Experience shows that in an emergency, even veteran humanitarians face new situations requiring a fast, high-quality response. With the Handbook, they have the most important information in the palm of their hands – anywhere, any time. It provides specific technical information quickly, for instance on how to start a project to communicate with refugee communities, or even how to handle sudden media interest,

The Handbook has been available online in English since 2015. Encouraged by the keen interest in the English platform in countries such as Bangladesh and Nigeria, we also wanted to make it available to the humanitarian community in other unfolding crises in places such as Syria, and the Venezuela situation – hence the new Arabic, French and Spanish versions.

Can you give examples of how it has been used?

Since 2013, more than one million South Sudanese refugees have sought safety in Uganda. We had to set up a transit centre quickly because thousands of men, women and children were fleeing to an area far away from any significant dwelling, without any shelter or infrastructure.

Fortunately, the online Emergency Handbook offers a sample design for a transit centre to receive refugees. The design shows where they would receive food, get health care and registration documents. Ultimately, the Handbook serves as a protection tool.

Another example are latrines. Every humanitarian knows that poor sanitation poses a potential threat to public health. But if you are not an expert, you probably do not know the minimum distance that latrines should be located from a tent. So you can immediately check the Handbook app about this distance needed to reduce health risks. If the latrine is too close, the standard gives you an argument to advocate for a remedy.

The Handbook can help everybody to prepare assistance and protection of new arrivals. For this, it contains a simplified version of the Preparedness Package for Refugee Emergencies, a hands-on guide for systematic risk analysis and actions to enhance the preparedness of UNHCR and its partners. The online Handbook offers also a template for a Contingency Plan, among many other useful tools.

The Emergency Handbook is available here.