Much has been said and written about the role of NGOs with regard to refugees. There is the question of NGOs and the UNHCR, NGOs and governments and the way NGOs relate to the refugees themselves. The current interest in NGOs might suggest that NGO involvement in refugee work in any consequential way is a new phenomenon or that NGOs are now emerging as the preferred channel for humanitarian aid to refugees. In reality, NGOs have been working with and for refugees at an international level long before governments did so. Indeed, the appointment of Fridjof Nansen, the very first High Commissioner for Refugees, by the international (governmental) community was at the urging of voluntary agencies.

The NGO/UNHCR partnership

That NGOs were to have a role in the work of UNHCR as presently constituted is clearly seen in the instruments that established the office within the United Nations. The first paragraph of the Statutes of the office (UN General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) of 14 December 1950) states that:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, acting under the authority of the General Assembly, shall assume the function of providing international protection, under the auspices the United Nations, to refugees who fall within the scope of the present Statute and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting governments and, subject to the approval of the governments concerned, private organisations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities.

A number of NGOs or groupings of NGOs have been active partners with UNHCR since its inception. The International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) was established by the agencies cooperating with the UN system in aiding refugees or migrants.

NGOs believed that they had a definite and distinctive role to play in the provision of refugee aid but they also recognised the complementarity and clarity of the role of UNHCR and host governments. At that time we emphasised that NGOs provided a peopletopeople approach, they could act with flexibility, their inputs were pragmatic and task orientated, and they could provide a prompt response. The dialogue has been updated in the PARinAC process [see note .. on p ..] but the issues are not new nor can they be resolved once and for all if the involvement of NGOs in refugee work is to retain its vitality.

I believe that in the intervening period NGOs have shown that they are able to make a critical difference by the nature of their contribution (ie by the four attributes listed above), although they are not always able to do so in all circumstances.

The NGO contribution

I see that NGOs can continue to make a critical difference in three main areas:

1. NGOs can provide services with a more human face, complementing the macroservices provided by the international (UN related) community or governments.

2. NGOs can raise issues of policy and practice for the benefit of those affected by forced migration in the appropriate international circles and fora and with the relevant governments.

3. NGOs can work to address human suffering in areas or with people who do not fall within the limits set in international instruments or protocols, and in cases of lowprofile emergencies.

Code of Conduct and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response

Attention should be focused on an agreed definition of voluntarism, not only by governments and their law makers and administrators but also by people working within the sector themselves. A recent initiative in this direction is the Code Conduct for Disaster Response which is quoted and commented upon in the May l995 issue of RPN (No 19). Unfortunately the names of the other six international umbrella networks (in addition to the International Red Cross Movement) which jointly sponsored the Code of Conduct are not mentioned in the RPN article; their inclusion would have indicated that it already has a wide acceptance among established agencies. They are Caritas Internationalis, Catholic Relief Services, International Save the Children Alliance, Lutheran World Federation, Oxfam and the World Council of Churches. Together with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies they comprise the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response. This committee concerns itself with policy and strategic questions relating to humanitarian aid and, since the early 1970s, has been an avenue for dialogue with the UN system with regard to emergency response. Much activity centred around the process of creating the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs in the hope of seeing an effective coordinating mechanism in the UN for response to natural and complex disasters. As I chaired a number of the meetings of the Steering Committee to review and accept the Code, let me add that our aim is to promote a voluntary selfregulatory code. It will take time but there is a precedence in the way that professional codes of conduct, such as in medicine and law, have evolved over time.

In the ongoing discussions about ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ NGOs, what is often overlooked are these international NGOs or alliances of NGOs which may also be described as families of NGOs. Most of the organisations which sponsored the Code of Conduct are in fact international NGOs. It may be that most of the financial resources come from the North but governance has long included representatives of the constituencies from the South and most of these organisations actively strive to ensure that this is so. This is certainly the case in the organisation from which I have recently retired, the Lutheran World Federation.

Awareness building

A traditional role for NGOs has been building awareness of the needs of refugees and this must continue. This has often helped the High Commissioner and has been particularly effective in bringing matters to the floor of the Executive Committee which governments may have been reluctant to consider or when it was considered to be outside the mandate of the committee. During the early 1980s, for example, it was considered out of order to raise the issue of ‘root causes’ at the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s programme. A way round this was found: by including it in the ICVA statement, it could not be ruled out of order by the chair of the meeting. The present High Commissioner now makes this a major point of her own statements and many governments include it in their interventions.

Women refugees

It took three years of consistent advocacy by NGOs (through ICVA and the NGO working group on refugee women) to get the women’s issue the attention it deserved [see article by Diana Quick in this RPN, p…]. It resulted in the decision to appoint a focal point in the office of UNHCR for women refugees at a senior staff level and the requirement that UNHCR must report annually to the UN General Assembly on the implementation of the provision.

Asylum and repatriation

Another issue where I believe NGOs can make an impact is to give attention to the concept of asylum. Much is heard today of temporary protection and even the present High Commissioner finds it necessary to report when certain governments have given temporary asylum to particular groups of refugees pending their return to their home countries. The right of asylum is enshrined in the Convention and subsequent instruments without any time limit being a condition, while repatriation, integration or resettlement are given as solutions. Asylum and temporary protection must be kept apart to ensure that the protection, which UNHCR is to provide, and the solutions, which UNHCR is to seek, are not merged: otherwise the granting of asylum may become conditional on the prior availability of one of the solutions, such as repatriation. It will require concerted international action, with burden sharing, so that countries where displaced people are found are aided economically to make it practically and politically possible to integrate them or accept their return.

How can Tanzania, for example, which is known for its policy of generous asylum since independence, absorb almost a million Rwandese refugees? It has obligations and pressures from its own people whose service institutions have been swamped and whose agricultural land has been overrun. Tanzania would need massive additional development support to absorb the new population; the present rate of return is lower than the monthly birthrate in the camps, despite constant urging for their early return. A comprehensive approach is needed, covering the needs of the refugees for their settlement or repatriation or a combination of both, as well as the needs of the host community in the country of asylum or origin to make integration politically possible.

When the 1980 and 1985 resolutions on voluntary repatriation were being passed, the NGOs pressed hard for an emphatic affirmation of the principle that repatriation must be voluntary. NGOs can now make a critical difference in ensuring that negotiated repatriation does not negate the principle of voluntary repatriation.

NGOs strongly contested the rule limiting the High Commissioner’s involvement in repatriation exercises to one year, which had become a doctrine in the secretariat of the High Commissioner. We called for a longer term involvement to ensure safe return and successful integration. This is particularly important where there has not been a complete change of government or a change in the nature of the state. In Namibia, for example, repatriation went relatively smoothly while in neighbouring Angola the process is much more complex because it involves a continuing civil war.

NGOs can make a critical difference by working in situations where UN and governmental agencies have not been able to function. There are many examples of this in the past and they are likely to occur in the future.

In Cambodia, for more than a decade after the fall of Pol Pot no UN aid was possible because the government of the day was not recognised by western governments. India and the East Block provided governmental aid; apart from that, only NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross were able to assist. A decision to create the first NGO consortium was made in Oxford, UK, on the very day in September l979 when the horrors of the Pol Pot regime were first made public in one of the London papers. For over a decade it was only these channels that provided assistance to the people of Cambodia.

Another example is that of providing food in the conflict areas of Ethiopia during the late 1980s. Voluntary agencies provided food aid to famine and civil war victims in and around Ethiopia while official aid channels anguished about the implications of working with the regime of Mengistu. A group of church agencies operating as the Joint Relief Partnership was able to provide aid to up to two million people in disputed areas over a period of several years, moving convoys of food some four hundred kilometres into conflict zones when it was not possible for either the Red Cross or the UN system to do so. Initially organised and implemented by international church agencies, responsibility shifted within eighteen months to local church structures using local personnel. This was possible because a) we had dependable local structures right down to the village level to provide adequate control to satisfy donor governments, b) we had the confidence of both sides to the conflicts and c), being of an NGO nature, we were not bound by the definitions of international instruments or diplomatic protocol and procedures. In this situation NGOs made a critical difference.

The ‘silent’ emergencies

If emergencies attract the media, it can result in massive and immediate resources for humanitarian response, as we saw in the case of Rwanda. But what of the countless small emergencies which don’t make the television headlines? There is a challenge to the NGO community to address the needs of these ‘silent’ emergencies which will not easily be met through media exposure.

Dr Brian W Neldner is the former director of the Lutheran World Federation and was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford, in 1996.

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