Helping refugees & displaced people

The work of Australia for UNHCR
Naomi Steer

United Nations Day is an occasion to highlight, celebrate and reflect on the work of the United Nations and its family of specialised agencies. It’s also an opportunity to recognise the support and contribution of civil society to the UN through organisations such as the UNAA and my organisation Australia for UNHCR. Today I am really delighted to be able to speak about how Australians through A4UNHCR are making a very significant difference to UNHCR’s work and most importantly to the lives of the people it serves - refugees and displaced people.

As you know I work to support the UN refugee Agency by raising funds for UNHCR’s international humanitarian projects. UNHCR operates in 116 countries, with 80 oer cent of its staff working directly in the field, often in remote areas of conflict such as Darfur, the DRC and Somalia. UNHCR’s job is to provide protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people who have been forced to leave their homes, and often their families and friends because of conflict and fighting.

Australia for UNHCR’s mission is to make a life changing difference to refugees by providing support to refugees that would not otherwise be given, - a plastic sheet to keep the rain off a families head, a gerry can to hold the water that you collect from the camps water point once day, cooking utensils to make a hot meal from the daily rations of wheat or maize and vegetable oil.All often very simple things that can be life saving.

For UNHCR and indeed all humanitarian agencies, 2011 has been an extremely challenging and dramatic year.UNHCR estimates there are now 43.7 million people uprooted due to conflict and persecution the highest number in over 15 years. At the start of the year, UNHCR was providing emergency support to thousands of refugees fleeing Cote d’Ivoire crisis after disputed elections with many hundreds of thousands internally displaced. As the Cote d’Ivoire crisis reached boiling point, the so called “Arab Spring” produced a new refugee emergency. As the uprising against Colonel Gadaffi gained steam a staggering 1.5 million people crossed into Tunisia and Egypt. In this mix of refugees and displaced people were thousands of migrants workers who also needed assistance to get home. In an incredible humanitarian effort, UNHCR, the IOM and its parties organised more that 1600 flights evacuating over 157,000 people to their home countries in a matter of weeks.

But more was to come. UNHCR and other agencies had been sounding the alarm on the deteriorating situations in Somalia and the Horn of Africa resulting in enormous movement of people within Somalia and outside. I was in Somali when Famine was declared by the UN in parts of Southern Somalia on 20 July this year. As I am sure you are all aware drought has affected East Africa for some time, but the combination of drought, conflict and high food prices tipped Somalia into Famine.

Galkayo like the rest of Somalia affected by drought is like a moonscape, very rocky, very barren. In the IDP Camps families were arriving daily from the south, many of them having walked hundreds of miles in search of food and security.The path to the camps was strewn with discarded blue plastic bags – the 'Galkayo flower', as it is referred to locally. People were squatting in the dirt making shelters out of twigs and rags and cardboard. They were barely able to keep out the never-ending wind and sandy grit that clung to everything. In one camp, a newly arrived family worked against the clock to get their shelter up before night. Their meagre belongings, carted many hundreds of miles from their village in the south, lay strewn on the ground around their camp site. They had gathered together a collection of used vegetable oil tins which they were going to use as a bed base. Next door a woman had gathered rocks together as her base and she cried as she told me she had never thought her life would lead to this situation.

The displaced population in Galkayo are either refugees from war, famine or both. People tell stories of failed crops, of whole flocks of sheep and goats dying from thirst and lack of feed. Many had fled Mogadishu after seeing family members killed in missile attacks or caught in cross fire. One woman arrived only days before, still in shock after learning that both her brother and father had been killed in the family home after staying behind to protect their window fittings and roof sheeting from looters during missile raids. Another young woman showed me remnants of shrapnel in her hands and legs. Everyone here has run out of coping strategies. It is the end of the line.

Across the border Dadaab refugee camp was receiving more than 1500 new arrivals a day. Having visited Dadaab a number of times it is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be there now with nearly half a million people living within a 32 km range in what is a desert in summer and a muddy bog when the rains come. In Dollo Ado in Ethiopia, family after family were arriving with tragic stories of children dying on the journey. You will recall the very sad news images of families burying their dead and tiny children struggling to survive.

You can imagine the difficulties of responding to a large scale emergency in a remote and conflict ridden region. But proudly I can say that UNHCR has managed to distribute an average of 70 tons per week of emergency supplies to the region. Most importantly in the latest updates about the situation UNHCR reported that for the first time since the beginning of the year crude mortality rates had dropped below the emergency threshold.

In his recent speech to the UNHCR Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Antonio Guterres described the global situation in these terms. 'unpredictability has become the name of the game, Crisis are multiplying , conflicts are becoming more complex and solutions are proving to be more and more elusive. In such challenging circumstances we must recognise our shared responsibility and we must exercise our shared commitment.'

Australians have risen to the challenge in providing much needed support to UNHCR’s emergency and operations. You might be surprised to learn that Australia for UNHCR is the third largest private sector donor to UNHCR globally.The majority of our funds do directly to support UNCR’s emergency operations. Just this year we have provided emergency assistance to UNHCR for its operations around Pakistan floods, Libya, Cote d’ Ivories, DRC and the Horn of Africa.

Support includes funding UNHCR’s emergency response team which provides technical support, communications, protection, camp management and logistics. We also have funded NFI’s such as plastic sheeting , tents, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans/In DRC we funded psychosocial counselling and legal assistance to the many victims of rape in that country. In the Horn of Africa crisis we have funded nutritional feeding programs, shelter, and emergency medical support. We also fund a number of discrete projects that would not otherwise happen without the support of Australian donors.

Safe mother and baby program

The Safe Mother and Baby program is designed to support mother, babies and their families through four stages - antenatal care, during childbirth, post natal care and family planning.
As I am sure you can imagine, for refugee women and babies, childbirth is fraught with risk. However, with the introduction of some simple health care and family planning services, UNHCR is seeing extraordinary results.  Central to the program is the Clean Delivery Kit – a plastic bag containing a clean blade, a plastic sheet, swaddling cloth, soap and a piece of string.

As part of its support program, UNHCR also provides training to community health workers and birth attendants, medical equipment, nutritional supplies and emergency transport. Wherever the kit has been introduced, child mortality rates have been dramatically reduced. We have funded this program in Myanmar and Chad and more recently in Pentland in Somalia, where Australia for UNHCR has funded for several years the Galkayo Medical Centre, the key health service provider in central Somalia.


Over a number of years we have formed a special relationship with Nakivale refugee camp in south west Uganda near the Congo border. More than 50 years it is home to 56,000 refugees over half of whom are young people. With our donor support we were able to build the first ever secondary school in Nakivale which provides placed for 145 students with nearly half girls. .

Vocational Training

We also set up the first ever computer centre in Nakivale with 40 solar powered work stations and the first ever” internet cafe.”Refugees will learn computer skills and be able to access other remote learning and work options. I was there for its opening a few weeks ago and I can’t tell you the joy that refugees expressed having a first rate facility. In one day alone more than 900 refugees signed up for training.


Malaria remains the number one cause of illness and death among refugees in vast tracts of Africa and Asia. A blood-borne parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, malaria kills a child every 30 seconds - 3000 children a day, and nearly one million people a year. It poses a particular threat to refugees, two thirds of whom live in malaria-endemic areas. Australians have funded a major campaign to prevent and treat malaria in African refugee settlements. Key to our work is the distribution of pyrethrum-treated mosquito nets. In many camps, we have teams going door-to-door to promote the nets' correct and effective use, targeting vulnerable groups like pregnant women, HIV/AIDS patients and young children. The bednet campaign has markedly reduced malaria infections among refugees in target countries like Kenya.

Save 80 Stoves

In Chad, we purchased Save80 stoves a fuel efficient stove aimed at reducing the amount of time women and children have to gather firewood as well as the risks associated with its collection. As you will see these are all very important programs that would not have happened without individual Australian support.

In concluding, I want to share with you the words of Adut Dau Atem a refugee from Sudan now living in Australia. As a young girl of eight, Adult Dau Atem, a Sudanese girl, lost everything – her home, her mother, her father, family and friends. Forced to flee her country, Adut walked across Africa for two years with other ‘lost children’ of Sudan before finding refuge in a camp in Kenya. From here she was eventually resettled to Australia. Since arriving in Australia Adut has continued to work to support UNHCR’s work for refugees by encouraging support from the Australian public. When I asked Adut what inspired her to do this she said to me:

When we were children alone on the camp. Someone kept giving us food, giving us shelter. And we asked who is giving this to us. And those people told us its UNHCR and we said who is UNHCR . Let us meet him. And then we realized UNHCR is nobody but everybody who is giving helps someone else.
Adut's words are a lovely way of looking at things and whether we are talking about UNHCR or the UN family as a whole we know that we can all be part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Naomi Steer is the founding National Director of Australia for UNHCR. This is the text of her speech to the United Nations Australia Association's Annual United Nations Day Lunch in Parliament House, Sydney, 24 October 2011.


Suggested citation
Steer, Naomi, 'Helping refugees & displaced people', Evatt Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, December 2011<>