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Frequently Asked Questions About International Emergency and Refugee Health (IERH)

What is a complex humanitarian emergency?

It is a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where:

  1. there is a breakdown of authority due to internal or external conflict and
  2. requires an international response that goes beyond the capacity of any single agency and/or the UN country program.

Common characteristics include:

  • civilian casualties, and populations besieged or displaced;
  • political or conflict-related impediments to delivery of assistance;
  • inability to pursue normal social, political or economic activities;
  • high security risks for relief workers; and
  • international/cross-border operations affected by political differences.


What is the difference between refugees and a displaced person?

Refugees have fled their country and have crossed an international border recognized by the UN. Displaced people, often referred to as internally displaced persons (IDPs), have been forced to move to another location within their country of residence.

"Refugee" and "IDP" are legal definitions defined by the United Nations. IERHB works with health issues for both refugees and IDPs.


Do refugees have any rights? If so, who protects them?

Refugees do have legal rights protected by international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention [PDF - 301 KB] defines the rights of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the UN agency responsible for refugee protection.


How many refugees or displaced people are in the world today?

According to UNHCR, there were about 9.9 million refugees and 12.8 million IDPs worldwide at the end of 2006 (2006 Global Trends report, UNHCR).

The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimates that there were more than 13.9 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide at the end of 2006 (World Refugee Survey 2007, US Committee for Refugees).


What health issues are most important early in an emergency?

Communicable diseases cause the most illness and death in humanitarian emergencies in less-developed countries and include measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea.


What are other priority areas during a complex emergency?

Besides addressing communicable diseases, other priority areas include the provision of adequate, safe water; food; shelter; protection from violence; and access to mental health and reproductive health services.


What other diseases commonly occur?

In addition to measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea, crowded settlements may be prone to outbreaks of cholera, meningitis, and other diseases that can spread from person to person rapidly. Such outbreaks can cause many deaths in a relatively short period of time.

For example, within 6 weeks of their arrival in Goma, Zaire, almost all the Rwandan refugees were infected with cholera, causing more than 40,000 deaths.


What major organizations work in this field?

UN agencies, government agencies, and NGOs respond to the needs of emergency-affected populations.

Under international law, the government of the country where refugees or displaced persons settle has primary responsibility for providing for their needs. However resources are scarce in many countries and governments cannot meet these needs.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate from the United Nations to provide services, including protection from further violence or discrimination.

The World Food Programme (WFP) provides food and UNICEF provides essential care, including vaccinations, nutrition monitoring, and other maternal and child health services.

NGOs also play an important role in ensuring the provision of care for emergency-affected populations. For a list of some of the organizations working in this field, please click here.


How is malnutrition measured?

In many emergencies, children under 5 are the most vulnerable to food shortage and manifest the effects of food shortages earlier than others.

For this reason, weight and height are measured to determine the overall nutritional status of a population.

  • Children whose weight to height ratio falls below certain standard cut-off points are considered acutely malnourished.
  • The prevalence of acute malnutrition is the proportion of all children measured to be malnourished. It is the main measure of severity in a population.

Although young children generally are the first to show signs of malnourishment, this is not always the case.

For example, in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, elderly pensioners whose fixed incomes were substantially devalued as a result of inflation often suffered these effects first.


How can I learn more about refugees or displaced people?

Many organizations monitor the number and condition of refugees throughout the world.

For more information, please visit our partner links section.

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  • Page last reviewed: June 24, 2011
  • Page last updated: June 24, 2011
  • Content source: Global Health
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