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A Comprehensive Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in the former Yugoslavia

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 24 July 1992
Citation / Document Symbol HCR/IMFY/1992/2
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), A Comprehensive Response to the Humanitarian Crisis in the former Yugoslavia, 24 July 1992, HCR/IMFY/1992/2, available at: [accessed 22 October 2017]

24 July 1992

1.     The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), designated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations as the lead agency for humanitarian relief in the former Yugoslavia, is providing protection and assistance to 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons as well as some 850,000 persons affected by the ongoing conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the deployment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), and in accordance with the United Nations peace-keeping plan, UNHCR has been entrusted with the design and implementation of a scheme to facilitate the voluntary return of the displaced to their homes in the United Nations Protected Areas (S/23592). UNHCR's activities are being undertaken jointly with UNICEF and WHO, in close cooperation with UNPROFOR, as well as with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Secretary-General and the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs have been kept closely informed of developments and have provided their full support to the humanitarian action.

2.     Despite all efforts, the displacement has reached dramatic proportions, placing an enormous burden on receiving States and rapidly exhausting the resources available to meet the needs of refugees, displaced persons and civilians under siege. The population flow continues unabated amidst growing conflict and spreading tensions, and with little hope for early solutions in sight.

3.     It is against this background of a large-scale and complicated refugee situation that the High Commissioner, following consultations with the Secretary-General and a number of Governments, and in close coordination with the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, has convened an informal international meeting at the ministerial level, with the objective of launching an initiative, on the one hand to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the victims and receiving States and, on the other, to intensify the action in search of a lasting solution to the plight of the victims of the conflict. The pursuit of these dual objectives demands concerted and coherent action towards a comprehensive approach which serves to: i) enhance respect for human rights and humanitarian law; ii) strengthen efforts to prevent or contain displacement; iii) provide temporary refuge and material assistance for those in need of international protection; and iv) initiate action to create conditions, including for the socio-economic rehabilitation of affected areas, in order to encourage refugees and displaced persons to return home. These components are inter-linked. They must be pursued simultaneously, yet flexibly, taking into account the evolving nature of the situation and the emerging opportunities for solutions.

4.     The effective implementation of a comprehensive approach requires the commitment and contribution of various parties, including the States emerging from the former Yugoslavia, the States which offer temporary protection to refugees, donor governments, international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the international community at large. Appropriate burden-sharing mechanisms, based on the notion of international solidarity and respect for human rights and humanitarian principles, must underlie such a comprehensive approach. The enormity of the humanitarian needs, as well as of efforts which must be launched eventually for reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia, also require enhanced cooperation and coordination among the various international agencies.

5.     In promoting such an approach, it should be emphasized at the outset that the problem in the former Yugoslavia cannot be resolved by humanitarianism alone. However, a comprehensive humanitarian approach can help to create an impetus for decisive political action to end the conflict and address the underlying causes. The following paragraphs outline the elements which could form the basis for such an approach.


1.         Respect for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

6.     The situation in the former Yugoslavia has been characterized by widespread atrocities, disregard for humanitarian law and massive violations of human rights, particularly targeted against civilians on grounds of national, ethnic or religious origin. Some of the most preoccupying features include systematic expulsions, forcible relocations, assassinations and occupation or destruction of homes, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Croatia. International relief workers have also been subjected to attacks. The reaffirmation of basic human rights and humanitarian law principles must be an essential element of a comprehensive humanitarian approach, and demands for their respect should be pursued vigorously at the highest political levels. The commendable efforts of the ICRC to negotiate agreements respecting the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols must be supported. The States emerging from the former Yugoslavia should be strongly encouraged to develop legislation and build institutions for the protection of human rights, particularly those of minorities.

2. Preventive Protection

7.     An important objective of humanitarian action in the former Yugoslavia has been, and should continue to be, to prevent and contain displacement, to the extent possible, by providing protection and assistance to victims of the conflict who might otherwise feel compelled to move. The continuation of hostilities, the growing atrocities and mounting tensions in a number of areas still free of conflict are obvious limitations to such preventive protection. Therefore preventive protection should not prejudice the right to seek asylum. On the other hand, while the results of a preventive strategy are difficult to assess for obvious reasons, such a strategy appears to have had some effect in containing the problem in the former Yugoslavia. Therefore, it is incumbent on the international community to pursue every opportunity for preventive action in order to reduce the factors which compel displacement and ease the way for early resolution of the problem.

8.     Preventive protection, aimed both at areas where conflict has broken out and also where tensions are mounting, can be undertaken through such activities as monitoring of the treatment of ethnic minority groups, mediation between parties, exposure of the practice of forced relocation and other measures to improve respect for human rights and humanitarian law. Such action is being carried out by UNHCR in cooperation with other relevant organizations, but requires greater support and encouragement of the international community as well as the parties concerned, both politically and financially.

9.     In this context, it is important to recognize that the presence of international organizations and NGOs for the purpose of providing relief can help to build confidence in fragile security situations. The international relief operation for the benefit of the affected population in Sarajevo and other areas is valuable not only as a measure of assistance, but also in terms of confidence-building and protection, by providing the possibility for monitoring of humanitarian treatment. International presence to provide relief to affected population should be increased to enhance preventive protection, in addition to addressing humanitarian needs.

3.         Humanitarian Access

10.  The provision of relief and monitoring of the safety and welfare of the individuals concerned is dependent on access to the population in need. While the airlift operation to Sarajevo has been successful in bringing a daily average of 200 metric tonnes of food and medical supplies to the besieged population, and while international organizations have been able to obtain access to some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina under extremely precarious conditions and at great risk to the security of their staff, it should be noted that ongoing conflict has prevented access to other regions and cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite all efforts to negotiate with the parties concerned. The protection and assistance needs of the population in these places consequently remain unaddressed and are probably dire. If a sustained and general relief effort is to be undertaken, overland routes must be secured and expanded. To this end, humanitarian access at all times to those in need of protection and assistance, whether in conflict or non-conflict areas, must be upheld by all parties and the international community, as must respect for the freedom of movement of the individuals and their right to seek protection and assistance. Principles must be established to ensure respect for the safety of relief workers and staff of international humanitarian organizations as an important aspect of humanitarian access.

4.         Special Humanitarian Needs

11.  Concern has been voiced by a number of Governments, NGOs and others about the evacuation of critical medical cases, notably children from Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, from Sarajevo. Criteria have been established, in close consultation with ICRC, UNICEF and WHO, to identify cases in a life-threatening condition for whom no treatment can be organized locally. The feasibility of medical evacuation is dependent on assurances of safe passage from the city to the airport. Where an evacuation is considered possible, it will be undertaken in close coordination with UNPROFOR, UNHCR and UNICEF. Given the limited resources and extremely precarious security conditions, utmost efforts should continue to be made to reduce the need for evacuation by providing adequate medical supplies and equipment for local treatment. Whatever action is taken, the overriding concern must be the best interest of the child and the maintenance of family unity.

5.         Temporary Protection

12.  Since the outbreak of the Yugoslav conflict, it has been the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that persons fleeing from the former Yugoslavia who are in need of international protection should be able to receive it on a temporary basis. By urging all Governments to provide such protection without discrimination, UNHCR has sought, firstly, to ensure the spirit of international solidarity and burden-sharing which underlies international action on behalf of refugees, secondly, to meet the humanitarian needs of the individuals concerned, and thirdly, to acknowledge the temporary, emergency nature of the need.

13.  Because of the large numbers involved, UNHCR believes that it is not practical to use individual asylum procedures, although persons who have a valid claim under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees should not be precluded from applying for it, if they so wish. While the concept of temporary protection will require further elaboration in the light of national legislation and procedures, it should include, at a minimum, admission to the country where such protection is being sought, respect for the principle of non-refoulement and basic human rights (the elements of which are further outlined in Conclusion 22 (XXXII)) of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, and repatriation when conditions so allow in the country of origin. The determination of the duration of temporary protection will require an ongoing assessment of the situation in the country of origin on the basis of reliable and up-to-date information. Appropriate mechanisms should be established for the collection, analysis and dissemination of such information, and for consultations among concerned Governments and UNHCR.

6.         Material Assistance

14.  Most of the support to refugees and displaced persons has been provided so far by the Republics and peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Although very large numbers of refugees have been received with great generosity and hospitality by these and other neighbouring countries, their reception capacities have now been stretched to the limit, and they have appealed for international assistance. Urgent support must be extended to these countries to strengthen their ability to continue to meet the basic needs of the refugees.

15.  The joint appeal launched by the Secretary-General on behalf of UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO in April 1992, was revised on 20 May 1992 from an initial amount of $24.3 million to $171 million. As of 22 July 1992, contributions amounted to $107 million for UNHCR, $7.3 million for UNICEF, and $0.5 million for WHO. As this appeal covers needs until March 1993 for 1 million persons living primarily in private accommodation, it should be underscored that it has been overtaken enormously by events. The number of those in need of humanitarian assistance has trebled in recent weeks to over 2.5 million and continues to grow. In addition to basic relief items for this larger number of persons, there will be increased costs for logistic support and additional activities by UNICEF and WHO in the health and social sectors. Arrangement for adequate shelter and fuel for heating must be made urgently before the onset of winter, including the rehabilitation of existing structures and construction of new accommodation. As the vast majority of the victims are families headed by women, specific assistance measures are envisaged by UNHCR, UNICEF and WHO to meet their special needs.

16.  Recent surveys conducted by the Governments, UNHCR and specialized NGOs indicate that at least 315,000 displaced persons/ refugees will require new accommodation before the winter (200,000 in Croatia, 100,000 in Serbia and. 15,000 in Slovenia). This figure does not include the needs in Bosnia and Herzegovina where, due to the ongoing conflict, it has not been possible to ascertain the real situation. However it is estimated that, at a minimum, 200,000 persons could be present without proper shelter in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

17.  Because of the dramatic daily increase in the number of refugees, recently some 10,000 per day, and the constantly evolving situation on the ground, it has not been possible as yet to indicate clearly the amount of funds which will be required. It is evident, however, that the magnitude of needs go far beyond the target of the May appeal as well as the capacity of UNHCR and a few agencies. It will require the massive mobilization of the entire United Nations humanitarian system and the international community at large. Therefore, in line with United Nations General Assembly resolution 46/182, a consolidated appeal, based on an urgent inter-agency assessment, should be launched to ensure that the displaced population and refugees are adequately sheltered and assisted. In the meantime, Governments are urged to make generous contributions to meet the shortfall against the existing budget as well as respond to the anticipated significant increases which will be reflected in the consolidated appeal.

7.         Return and Rehabilitation

18.  Temporary protection and international assistance can not be allowed to become protracted and most be linked clearly to the pursuit of lasting solutions. which, in turn, must respect the rights of the individuals concerned, including their right to return home in safety and dignity. To this end adequate confidence-building measures need to be taken by the Governments concerned. Within the framework of the plan approved by the Security Council, UNHCR has been asked by the Secretary-General to facilitate the return of displaced persons to areas protected by UNPROFOR. Return has taken place to some parts of Croatia. However, large numbers of the displaced and refugees are unable to return in the absence of adequate security conditions, measures to halt forcible relocations and assurances for the respect of their basic human rights. Additional disincentives for return include the deepening hostility towards persons of other national or ethnic origins, massive destruction of homes, occupation of abandoned houses, the presence of mines and the general disruption of economic activities essential to a normal life.

19.  A realistic assessment of the rehabilitation and reconstruction needs is not currently possible, even in the United Nations Protected Areas, in view of continuing destruction and tensions. However, it is clear that the eventual large-scale return of refugees and displaced persons, following a political settlement, will require the mobilization of reintegration and rehabilitation assistance on a significant scale.

20.  While intensive efforts at the political level must continue for a peaceful settlement to provide the necessary conditions for return, it is extremely important that every opportunity for persons to exercise their right to return should continue to be pursued. A mechanism should be developed for regular and reliable information exchange on conditions prevailing in the areas to which persons could return, dialogue, including through Tripartite Commissions involving the parties and UNHCR. to create conditions conducive to return, and promotion of guidelines and arrangements for return in keeping with internationally recognized safeguards.


1.         Follow-up to the International Meeting

21.  As the above paragraphs amply demonstrate, a coordinated, comprehensive approach to a rapidly evolving situation as in the former Yugoslavia must be developed in such a manner as to be flexible and responsive to new developments. Not all aspects of the approach can be achieved at the same time or at the same speed. Solutions, in particular, may need to be approached in phases, as opportunities emerge for a political settlement in specific parts of the former Yugoslavia. Therefore, a comprehensive approach should be accompanied by the creation of an international coordinating mechanism at the political and technical level which allows regular exchange of information, dialogue and consideration of options for concerted action in relation to prevention, protection and return, as well as for the mobilization of international assistance and support for humanitarian action. Such a coordinating mechanism should comprise a "core group" of States which are directly concerned with the problem, including both receiving States and donor governments, as well as interested organizations, and could be convened under the auspices of UNHCR.

2.         Inter-agency Cooperation

22.  Mobilization of international humanitarian assistance is, as mentioned in para. 17 above, an essential part of the comprehensive approach. Organizations inside and outside the United Nations system must now be mobilized since the magnitude and complexity of a programme of such dimensions clearly requires a major coordinated effort to address the immediate, medium, and longer-term assistance needs of the victims of the conflict. The coordination mechanism established by UNHCR as the lead agency with UNICEF, WHO, IOM, IFRC, and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), and the cooperation established with ICRC to meet the requirements of the relief operation, should be reinforced, both at the level of needs assessment and implementation arrangements. The identification of new or increased needs will require the participation of other agencies with relevant expertise. The Inter-agency Standing Committee established pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 46/182, under the auspices of the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, should be utilized to mobilize the enormous material and financial resources necessary for the short-term assistance, as well as the longer-term rehabilitation needs which may call for the involvement of lending and development-oriented agencies. The creation of a Task Force by ICVA of NGOs which are already engaged in activities or considering involvement in the Republics of former Yugoslavia is a welcome development which will augment the existing partnership between the various agencies and organizations.

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