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Warning in the UNHCR

The UNHCR’s warning efforts have the sole purpose of detecting and warning of

impending refugee flows, and the UNHCR’s recent emphasis on preventive solutions has

highlighted the need for more extensive efforts in these areas (UNHCR g: 43). Unfortunately,

the UNHCR’s mandate poses substantial problems for early warning — problems

to which the UNHCR has developed several compromise solutions.

Three characteristics of the UNHCR’s mandate reduce the utility of early warning and

the UNHCR’s capability to provide this warning. First, the UNHCR was originally mandated

to act on behalf of refugees already in existence — not potential refugees. Thus,

UNHCR warning efforts have little practical effect since the organization is not authorized

to take action to avert new refugee flows. Second, all UNHCR actions must have the

consent of the government concerned. Because this same government either intends to

create the refugee flow or usually does not want to acknowledge its existence, the government

generally resents UNHCR warnings (Gordenker: 360). Finally, the UNHCR is limited

to “non-political,” “humanitarian and social” activities. Strictly interpreted, this

constraint restricts explicit warning because the warning itself almost certainly has political

implications for the host state (Druke: 181).

Recent changes in the international security environment have demonstrated the inability

of traditional solutions to resolve the world’s refugee problems (UNHCR g: 19-40).

By its very nature, prevention requires early warning, and this imperative has caused the

UNHCR to intensify its warning efforts during the last five years. There are actually two

distinct forms of so-called early warning now used within the UNHCR. The first is a systemic,

bureaucratized form of early warning, while the latter involves early notification

and emergency preparedness. Each represents a compromise solution to the constraints of

the UNHCR’s mandate.

The CDR is the focal point for systemic early warning, and its early warning systems

are intended to identify crises before they occur so that the UNHCR, in cooperation with

other UN entities (with appropriate mandates), can take preventive action to avert potential

refugee flows. Toward this end, the CDR oversees two “warning systems” — the

Country Information Project and the International Refugee Electronic Network (IRENE)

(Ruiz: 155) — and it represents the UNHCR at DHA’s interagency working group on

warning (Dedring: 99).

These warning systems do not produce formal warning products, however, and the

High Commissioner relies on early warning from the UNHCR’s field offices. Privately,

UNHCR officials comment they never receive early warning from DHA because it has no

field presence. In fact, DHA relies on UNHCR reports for warning of refugee movements.

Mrs. Ogata’s comment that early warning comes from the field indicates a second type of

UNHCR warning activity which is similar to early notification. Early notification does

not predict a potential refugee flow; rather, it provides the earliest possible report that a

refugee flow has already begun and is likely to escalate into a crisis.

263

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