UN agency failed to meet refugee crisis, says report

Peter Capella

Saturday February 12, 2000

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR was badly prepared and undermined by weak management during the flood of Kosovo Albanians from the province which began last March, according to an independent assessment by five academics and aid workers.

The report, which was commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, says that the agency underestimated the demands of a high-profile emergency. It criticises inadequate staffing levels, inappropriate and cumbersome decision-making, and limited financial resources in the crucial first weeks of the crisis when around 850,000 Kosovo Albanians fled to Albania and Macedonia within a month.

While it underlines that the UNHCR was exposed to a politically-charged environment beyond its control, and criticises Nato and several European countries, the report also points out that the agency's weaknesses encouraged governments and other bodies to undermine its accepted international role as the lead refugee organisation.

"The agency was in some respects weaker than it needed to be by not optimally utilising the resources which it did control, or could easily acquire. This applies particularly to management practices and staffing patterns, [and] possibly to diplomacy in the field during the initial phase," the report said.

"We didn't even meet our own emergency stand-by arrangements," Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman, admitted yesterday.

Normally the UNHCR should be able to deliver relief supplies for 250,000 people and deploy emergency response teams within 72 hours, which it failed to do. Decisions were not made soon enough and "junior or inexperienced staff were at times placed in overly demanding positions", making it unable to address critical diplomatic and logistical challenges as Macedonia sought to close its borders, according to the report.

It also depicts a situation where officials came to rely on Nato's assertions that air strikes "would be a solution rather than a problem", mak ing the extent of the impending refugee crisis unpredictable. When thousands of Kosovo Albanians did start to flee, the report speculates that Nato's claims that the exodus was caused by a Serb offensive were an attempt to deflect criticism of the air strikes.

"If not, it raises serious questions about the responsibility of a regional organisation, and its members, to inform UNHCR of likely refugee consequences of military activities," the assessment continues. It also suggests that Nato had known about the Serb plans since December 1998.

Fearing that the exodus would spill over into western Europe, and anxious to subdue domestic public opinion, EU countries are also criticised for unnecessarily bypassing the UNHCR to deliver high-profile assistance directly within Albania and Macedonia. Only 3.5% of the top six EU contributors' funding for the humanitarian crisis went to the refugee agency.

However, the report notes that the UNHCR's shortcomings had minor consequences on the welfare of refugees, and were exacerbated by the exceptional scale of the exodus, as well as its high visibility. UNHCR staff in Macedonia were outnumbered five to one by 450 international journal ists, and were placed under further strain by a "steady stream of high-level politicians who visited the region in the early period requesting briefings and tours and who were often unaccustomed to a certain chaos characteristic of an initial emergency response".

In a statement, the UNHCR said it was taking steps to strengthen its emergency response but emphasised that its operation turned out to be "vital for the beneficiaries and for the international community".

The report points out that the refugee agency's own evaluations indicate that it also performed "well below the mark" in previous emergencies in Sudan, in the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region of Africa, and during the Gulf crisis.

Original article