Issue 23 - Article 5

NGOs in refugee protection: an unrecognised resource

May 29, 2003
Henk Van Goethem

The majority of humanitarian organisations have been cautious about any suggestion that they should engage in protection activities for refugees. But they can no longer afford this hands-off approach towards protection issues.

Traditionally, there has been widespread concern among NGO and Red Cross/Red Crescent humanitarian agencies that overt protection interventions for refugees risk politicising humanitarian work, jeopardising an organisation’s ability to operate with government counterparts and to deliver assistance irrespective of the causes that underlie each refugee crisis. Yet increasingly, humanitarian professionals have come to realise that a hands-off approach to protection is no longer enough. In the face of flagrant human rights abuse against refugees, humanitarians can no longer turn a blind eye without comprising their values. Nor is it tenable in operational terms to merely reiterate that the bulk of refugee protection responsibilities lie with states, supported by UNHCR. Field presence necessarily entails a share in seeking to secure the rights of refugees.

Assistance and protection: two sides of the same human dignity coin

To a cynic, the new emphasis on human rights and protection may seem merely fashion – a repackaging exercise designed to revamp the credibility of humanitarian agencies in the aftermath of international crises frequently characterised as ‘protection failures’. There is no doubt that the language of human rights is powerful: it carries considerable moral and legal authority and acts as a kind of ‘trump card’ in arguments about moral behaviour. But the nature and basis of human rights and protection is often assumed to be universally understood and accepted, whereas the meaning and usage of the term is in fact unclear, obscuring the range and reach of activities required to give it a genuine, tangible content.

It is well-known that humanitarians choose their career because they care deeply about man-made injustices, including forcible displacement. The human impulse to undertake humanitarian activities for uprooted people is grounded in the age-old customs and values of respect, hospitality and solidarity. In other words, the humanitarian ethic has spawned altruistic action to help overcome vulnerability and restore human dignity. Humanitarianism is thus in essence action-oriented. Moreover, its foundations are not confined to moral imperatives, but are also of a legal nature. Modern international law contains a myriad of binding norms that define rights aimed at regulating human behaviour. However, rights cannot have meaning without corresponding duties. To this effect, states and other parties have voluntarily undertaken legal obligations to respect, promote and realise the rights of people in their territories. The norms and principles of greatest relevance to humanitarians are found in national and international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. By means of their activities, humanitarians promote human well-being and respect for the inalienable rights of the people they assist. As a consequence, humanitarianism is firmly rooted in respect for human rights, and should therefore also seek to realise and protect those rights.

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Risks for NGOs in refugee protection

The real question is no longer whether humanitarian actors should play a role in protecting and furthering rights. The unresolved issue is rather how, given their varying mandates and methods of working, humanitarian organisations will ensure that the protection of human rights, including refugee rights, is translated into the provision of essential and lifesaving services. Whereas NGOs may not be specifically mandated through international legal conventions to offer protection to refugees, many national and international NGOs operate under mission statements that commit them to providing practical protection to refugees.

Many factors speak in favour of a more robust role for NGO and Red Cross/Red Crescent actors in the practical protection of refugees, not least their far-reaching presence and daily interaction with these populations. Most NGOs working with displaced populations provide material and other forms of assistance and/or take part in the establishment and maintenance of camps and other settlements. This puts them in a good position to monitor and report on rights violations. Operational presence in refugee settlements also enables NGOs to involve refugees in all aspects of the planning and delivery of relief services and goods.

Some agencies with a speciality in relief may be worried about risking their neutrality and organisational independence when developing protection initiatives. Others may feel uncomfortable for fear of blurring traditional divisions of labour between themselves and their contracting donor (often UNHCR). Staff security concerns may at times rightly impede NGOs from engaging in confrontational advocacy work, but do not pre-empt the same agencies from passing on delicate information through more discrete channels.

Neither ICRC nor UNHCR is able to meet the diversity of refugee protection problems. Under these conditions, collaborative efforts, which draw on each member of the humanitarian community’s strengths, are vital to securing refugees’ rights. A shared vision of refugee protection and a common understanding of each other’s mandates, roles and responsibilities is, therefore, a prerequisite for successful protection partnerships. For everyone involved, doing refugee protection means analysing the context properly, knowing the framework of applicable standards well, and being trained to work with it sensitively.

Train to protect, as well as assist: the Reach Out project

In late 1997, UNHCR embarked upon a consultation process known as ‘Reach Out’. This was intended to reinvigorate support for the essential principles and institutions of refugee protection, and for UNHCR’s protection mandate. A concrete outcome of the process was the creation of an inter-agency training project on refugee protection spearheaded and owned by NGOs, and developed in close cooperation with UNHCR.

The Reach Out training project was launched in early 2001 by a large coalition of humanitarian agencies. It aims to enhance the refugee protection awareness and skills of NGO and Red Cross/Red Crescent programme staff. To this end, it gives primarily field-based humanitarians an opportunity to analyse how their assistance efforts could better safeguard the physical, material and legal protection of refugees. By bringing together humanitarian agencies, the UN, the Red Cross/Red Crescent, human-rights defenders and refugee advocacy groups, Reach Out encourages each to determine their protection reach for refugees, and to identify shortcomings, missed opportunities and areas for future joint action. The project provides for two levels of training: three-day introductory workshops, and five-day training of trainers workshops. Participation is free of charge. The reference manual Protecting Refugees: A Field Guide for NGOs (a joint NGO–UNHCR publication) is the core text for Reach Out workshops.

Two years in, the Reach Out project has conducted 23 training events involving 784 humanitarian workers. Workshops have been held across the world, from Canada to Zambia, in English, French and Russian. In general, the workshops have been well received. Much more remains to be done: interagency training alone, much-needed though it may be, cannot change organisational decision-making. It is only a starting-point for a bottom-up approach from the field.

Shifting mindsets

‘Old-schoolers’ interpret refugee protection as exclusively UNHCR’s field of activity. To an extent, this is reinforced by the split between protection and programme departments in many organisations, including UNHCR. In workshops, Reach Out seeks to dissolve this divide and highlight the protection aspects of all agencies’ work, whether they see themselves as protection agencies, humanitarian assistance providers or human rights defenders. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that, as agencies, we need to better understand our own and each other’s potential role in refugee protection.

Reach Out workshops aim to map how combined efforts can be most complementary. One key message is that each of the actors identified, including the government, host communities and groups among the refugees themselves, can pose threats or provide solutions to protection problems. Roles change in different contexts: while host governments hold the primary responsibility for protecting refugees, the political will and capacity to meet this obligation can vary dramatically. Similarly, despite its mandate UNHCR’s hands are often tied by reluctant or frustrated host governments, in-house problems and resource constraints. In the field, this means that NGOs and Red Cross/Red Crescent players need to position their programmes around these weaknesses, either by filling gaps or by making others responsible for doing so. Equally, in each workshop location, UNHCR participants are invited to be frank about their agency’s limitations, and to make constructive suggestions as to how others can best support its efforts.

Organisational limitations

While training is needed, and working from the bottom up is in many cases the only immediately available option, the effect on the organisation as a whole is limited. Such training is often done in an organisational vacuum, leaving trained people without adequate in-house backing to adjust and rethink refugee programming. Notable exceptions are the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam GB. Both agencies have established protection departments with a mandate to address advocacy and public policy, and to establish protection-sensitive relief programmes for refugee populations.

In the end, protecting refugees is a shared responsibility. For this to be meaningful, the refugee protection debate needs to be grounded in concrete, tangible realities, and our focus must be on the practical steps that agencies can take to improve how they bring refugee rights alive. Many tough challenges lie ahead. Progress is slow, but eventually monitoring human rights violations, alerting the public and media and educating refugees in how to protect themselves will become a central component of relief work.

Henk van Goethem is the Reach Out project manager. His email address is: Between 1993 and 2001, he worked for UNHCR.

Special thanks to Katy Barnett, who worked on the Reach Out training project team between August 2001 and August 2002. For more information and a schedule of forthcoming workshops, see

References and further reading

Growing the Sheltering Tree: Protecting Rights Through Humanitarian Action (Geneva: Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2002).

Protecting Refugees: A Field Guide for NGOs, produced jointly by UNHCR and its partners.

Strengthening Protection in War: A Search for Professional Standards (Geneva: ICRC, 2001).

G. Goodwin-Gill, ‘The Language of Protection’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989, pp. 6–19.

‘Don’t Just Train’, TalkBack Newsletter, vol. 4-1, 21 March 2002,

Angela Raven-Roberts, Meeting the Needs of Internally Displaced Children: Training and Capacity Building of Agency Personnel’, Forced Migration Review, no. 15, pp. 14–15,

‘Report on a Workshop on Practical Protection in Humanitarian Crises’, Institute for the Study of Forced Migration, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 17–18 December 2001, For a report of the workshop, see Susan Martin and Elizabeth Moller, ‘NGOs and Practical Protection in Humanitarian Crises’ Humanitarian Exchange 22, November 2002,


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