FOCUS ON – Humanitarian evacuations | March 21, 2017

Humanitarian evacuations have always been a complex operation used sparingly. However, in recent years, the intensity of certain conflicts contributed to a greater use of this measure. To this extent, the Global Protection Cluster, led by the UNHCR, has been attempting to draft and disseminate Minimum Standards… with limited success.   2014: a rise in […]

Humanitarian evacuations have always been a complex operation used sparingly. However, in recent years, the intensity of certain conflicts contributed to a greater use of this measure. To this extent, the Global Protection Cluster, led by the UNHCR, has been attempting to draft and disseminate Minimum Standards… with limited success.


2014: a rise in humanitarian evacuations, which prompted the international community to react

At the beginning of 2014, humanitarian actors in the Central African Republic (CAR) organized the relocation of hundreds of civilians under imminent physical threat to safer locations inside the country as well as across borders. Almost at the same time, in Syria, the humanitarian evacuation of civilians from the besieged Old City of Homs was orchestrated during a ceasefire negotiated by the parties to the conflict.[1]

According to a report released by the Global Protection Cluster in November 2014, in each instance, humanitarian actors in these operations sought guidance and advice, as well as institutional backing and support, as they assessed and determined a strategy and operational procedures for evacuations.[2]

Yet, not everything went well… For instance, in CAR, on February 18, the Chadian army sent in a few trucks to evacuate some of the displaced population from PK12, a landlocked neighborhood in Bangui where Muslims had found shelter. However, there was only room for 200 to 250 people on the trucks. Desperate to leave the camp, 2,000 people started to panic and in the subsequent chaos, five children, including a baby, were crushed to death in the transit camp.[3]

Such tragic turn of events indicated possible gaps in practical operational guidance and, more importantly, in decision-making processes. These kind of interventions  indeed  demand  close  coordination  between  humanitarian  actors  and  others, including national and local authorities, armed groups, international peacekeepers and political actors.

To this extent, the Global Protection Cluster, led by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), developed Minimum Standards for participation in inter-agency humanitarian evacuations, immediately after the events of early 2014.

A United Nations official overseeing the evacuation process
A United Nations official overseeing the evacuation process, welcomes the evacuees of the Old City of Homs (February 2014) © Haidar Razouk / Transterra Media

Conducting a humanitarian evacuation according to the UNHCR

On February 14, 2017 the Global Protection Cluster contributed to the diffusion of the Minimum Standards drafted in 2014 by organizing a webinar. Louise Aubin, Deputy Director in UNHCR’s Division of International Protection, and Pierre Gentile, Head of the Protection Division and the Central Tracing Agency at the ICRC, introduced the subject to the audience.

They highlighted steps to be implemented ahead, during and after a humanitarian evacuation.

For instance, when deciding whether to organize or not a humanitarian evacuation, which should always be a measure of last resort, stakeholders must first analyze all the options available as well as consult and seek support from the Humanitarian Country Team or the UNHCR headquarters.

To ensure the best possible conduct of a humanitarian evacuation, the Global Protection Cluster has also identified best practices such as: select a safe and secure relocation; engage with communities; profile the concerned population and assess needs; map requirements for the evacuation; agree on modalities and standards; develop a plan of action; promote the right to return; train and prepare staff; or pre-position humanitarian relief for the evacuation.

During a humanitarian evacuation, stakeholders should have to deal with limited unforeseen circumstances. As a result, the Global Protection Cluster advises all actors involved to work on a common agreement on how they should react if serious protection issues arise during an actual evacuation. The latter should include e.g. contingency schemes able to cope with individuals within the community either interfering with the evacuation or propagating misleading information; part of the convoy being stopped or re-routed; confiscation of documents; individuals being detained by a party to the conflict; or even an attack on the convoy.

Eventually, once a humanitarian evacuation is completed, the Global Protection Cluster strongly recommends monitoring the relocation area with regard to the protection environment as well as access to services and rights, including freedom of movement. It also suggests to conduct a participatory assessment with relocated individuals and communities as soon as possible, and to capitalize on lessons learned prior, during and after the exercise.

Could the Global Protection Cluster and the UNHCR have done more?

Developed in February 2014, the Global Protection Cluster’s Minimum Standards for participation in inter-agency humanitarian evacuations was meant to avoid, as much as possible, some of the difficulties, human rights abuses and serious shortcomings encountered during the humanitarian evacuations of Homs in Syria or PK12 in CAR.

A humanitarian evacuation was organized, once again in Syria, on December 2016 when the civilians of the war-torn city of Aleppo had to be moved to safety. However, the development and dissemination of the Minimum Standards for two years did not prevent repeated breaches of International Humanitarian Law.

For instance, screenings by Syrian government forces of people leaving the city were implemented.[4]

In addition, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, more than 300 people went missing from east Aleppo in late 2016. The Telegraph spoke to two families which confirmed the round-ups. One father, whose son was arrested 10 days prior, had even heard his son had already been fighting with the Syrian military in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. Such information was nothing but surprising insofar as the Syrian army had been looking to bolster its dwindling numbers, having suffered a huge loss of manpower during the first five-years of the conflict.

Besides being powerless in the face of such abuses, the Global Protection Cluster’s Minimum Standards suffers from some drawbacks. It does not, for instance, say anything about the specific care of those living with disabilities during a humanitarian evacuation. Only the needs of some of the most vulnerable, like the ones of children or the needs of the sick and wounded, are mentioned in reference to IHL.

Championing the inclusion of the most vulnerable

In an attempt to remedy this situation, NGOs have stepped in.

For instance, Handicap International and several partner organizations launched a Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action during the World Humanitarian Summit, which took place in May 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey. The latter attracted support from nearly 100 States, humanitarian organizations, funding bodies, and non-profit organizations during a special session on disability held on May 23.

During this special session, 70 participants signed the charter and expressed their enthusiastic support for humanitarian action that is more inclusive of people with disabilities. They included representatives of States such as Australia, Finland, Luxembourg, Germany, and the United Kingdom, representatives of NGOs and human rights organizations, a representative of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, disabled people’s organizations as well as the leaders of United Nations organizations such as the UNHCR.

More recently, the Norwegian Refugee Council published a guidance document suggesting a few considerations for planning mass evacuations of civilians in conflict settings.[5] The latter include several references to the specific needs of the most vulnerable, including those living with disabilities. For instance, the document reminds NRC’s staff members that the elderly persons or the persons with disabilities do not always have the capabilities to gather for joint meetings. Accordingly, they should be contacted and informed by other means. Likewise, to prevent the separation of children, elderly and persons with disabilities from their families, the organizations doing the registration may want to consider designing supplemental identification means such as bracelets or necklaces that contain key identity information. If such methods are used however, they should be distributed as late as possible before the evacuation to minimize potential loss or theft and information campaigns should be carried out to explain the purpose of the items.[6]

To learn more about Handicap International‘s action.


[1] Al Jazeera, “Hundreds evacuated from Homs in Syria”, 10 February 2014; available here: (last consulted : March 1st, 2017)

[2] Global Protection Cluster, “Humanitarian evacuations in armed conflict”, November 2014; available here: (last consulted : March 1st, 2017)

[3] Martine Flokstra, Head of Mission for Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Central African Republic, “Trapped in PK12 camp with nowhere to run”, March 3rd, 2014; available here: (last consulted : March 1st, 2017)

[4] Josie Ensor, Yasser Alhaji, “Civilians fleeing rebel-held east Aleppo ‘detained and conscripted’ by Syrian forces”, The Telegraph, 5 December 2016; available here: (last consulted : March 1st, 2017)

[5] Norwegian Refugee Council, NRC Considerations for Planning Mass Evacuations of Civilians in Conflict Settings. (Geneva: Norwegian Refugee Council, 2016)

[6] Ibid. p.28


Posted in HI Institute, Humanitarian Access, Humanitarian AidTagged