• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

A terrible dilemma

Setting the Agenda, 19 August 2009

© UNHCR/H.Caux
UN High Commissioner António Guterres, accompanied by UNHCR staff member Zill-e-Usman, visited a recently-displaced young Pakistani girl near Peshawar in May, 2009. Zill-e-Usman was shot by unidentified gunmen in July.

GENEVA, August 19 (UNHCR) UNHCR is still in shock over the recent brutal killing of staff member Zill-e-Usman, who was shot by unidentified gunmen in the Katcha Gari camp on the border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Another staff member, Ishfaq Ahmad, was wounded in the July 16 incident. A guard working with the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees, a government-funded agency, was also killed. Four to five gunmen reportedly opened fire on Mr. Usman as he was walking back from the camp administrative office to his car during a routine visit to the site.

Mr. Usman was the third UN refugee agency staff member to be killed in Pakistan this year. On June 9, Aleksandar Vorkapic died in the bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar; on February 2, Syed Hashim, UNHCR senior driver, was killed in the kidnapping of John Solecki, head of the Quetta office, who was later released.

As I wrote to Mr. Usman's family, his murder is a cruel blow. There is no justification for attacks on humanitarian workers dedicated to the protection and care of the world's most vulnerable people. The killing of Mr. Usman was an outrage and a tragedy that affects us all.

This August 19, on the occasion of the first ever World Humanitarian Day, we will pause to remember Mr. Usman and hundreds of other UN and non-governmental organization workers who have lost their lives while carrying out their duties around the world. The date is important: it was on August 19, 2003, that a massive bomb blast in Baghdad took the lives of then UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.

Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the United Nations as a whole. This is non-negotiable.

High Commissioner António Guterres

The ongoing death toll of humanitarian workers raises fundamental questions about how we can ensure staff security in unstable environments.

Globally, it reminds us of the major dilemma facing humanitarian agencies around the world how do we meet the life-or-death needs of the world's most vulnerable people while making sure those who provide that help are kept safe? Our ability to assist those who need it most is being severely tested by the shrinkage of the so-called 'humanitarian space' in which we must work. The nature of conflict is changing, with a multiplicity of armed groups -- some of whom view humanitarians as legitimate targets.

Another example of this is the brutal murder last month of Ms. Natalia Estemirova, a staff member of UNHCR's partner, Memorial, in the Russian Federation. Ms. Estemirova was found dead in the North Caucasus region of Ingushetia following her abduction from her home in Chechnya. Since 2000, in addition to her work as a prominent human rights investigator, Ms. Estemirova had been a social worker with Memorial and its UNHCR-funded legal and social counselling project in Grozny. She worked on issues related to internally displaced people in Chechnya and their safe return to their homes. Memorial has been an implementing partner of UNHCR in the North Caucasus since 2000 and received UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award in 2004.

Humanitarian personnel work in the most dangerous places in the world and risk their own lives in the effort to help vulnerable populations to preserve theirs. Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the United Nations as a whole. This is non-negotiable.

And yet, with the evolving nature of armed conflict and the changing attitudes of some belligerents, the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has increased, establishing a tension -- and in some situations a contradiction -- between the imperatives of staff safety and humanitarian action. UNHCR has continuously struggled to determine the 'acceptable' level of security risk to which its staff members can be exposed.

As this month's commemoration demonstrates, it is a truly terrible dilemma.

By António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees




UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Home Without Land

Land is hot property in mountainous Afghanistan, and the lack of it is a major reason Afghans in exile do not want to return.

Although landless returnees are eligible for the Afghan government's land allocation scheme, demand far outstrips supply. By the end of 2007, the authorities were developing 14 settlements countrywide. Nearly 300,000 returnee families had applied for land, out of which 61,000 had been selected and 3,400 families had actually moved into the settlements.

Desperate returnees sometimes have to camp in open areas or squat in abandoned buildings. Others occupy disputed land where aid agencies are not allowed to build permanent structures such as wells or schools.

One resilient community planted itself in a desert area called Tangi in eastern Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan private sector and the international community, water, homes, mosques and other facilities have sprouted – proof that the right investment and commitment can turn barren land into the good earth.

Posted on 31 January 2008

Home Without Land

Iraq: Breaking BreadPlay video

Iraq: Breaking Bread

Shareef fled to Iraq a year ago to escape the violence in Syria. He opened a bakery, which has done great business. When he heard about a new wave of displacement in northern Iraq in August, he decided to help those in need by providing bread.
Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in KhankePlay video

Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in Khanke

A new camp for displaced people is taking shape in the village of Khanke in Iraq's Kurdistan region, with the help of UNHCR and its partners. After weeks of uncomfortable living in the courtyard of an old public building, Chenar and her ethnic Yazidi family are looking forward to moving to the new facility.
Iraq: Massive UNHCR Aid OperationPlay video

Iraq: Massive UNHCR Aid Operation

The UN refugee agency is conducting a massive aid operation to assist some 500,000 Iraqis displaced by conflict in northern Iraq. It includes airlifts, and transport of aid by road and sea.