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PPRE contingency planning (refugee situations)

Key points
  • The contingency plan is not an end in itself. It sets out planning decisions for an emergency response that all partners have agreed to.
  • UNHCR should always lead refugee contingency planning, in support of the host government and in collaboration with UN and NGO partners.
  • A good contingency plan is easily converted into a response plan and includes budget estimations for the first three months of the response.
  • Contingency planning processes must include a review of key priority preparedness actions, including budgetary requirements for urgent preparedness interventions that will lay the ground for future implementation of a plan.


Scenario-based contingency planning for refugee emergencies is a context-specific (non-mandatory) Advanced Preparedness Action (APA) that defines a response strategy. It takes place after a risk analysis has concluded that a refugee emergency has become more likely.

It is defined as ‘a concise document that outlines the interagency response strategy with actions to be taken, by whom, where, and with what immediately available resources during the initial emergency response (first 3 months), should a specific risk scenario occur and once pre-identified activating triggers are met'.

Main guidance

When and for what purpose

A scenario-based contingency plan:

  • Focuses on one very specific risk scenario only. Keep in mind that what matters is to review and implement the Preparedness Action Plan (MPAs/APAs). No planning scenario is perfect, so do not spend too long in debate. Instead, concentrate on the operational consequences for your operation and on response strategies to address those consequences.
  • Does not replace other preparedness actions.
  • Is a relatively small component of a robust Preparedness Action Plan. It is only one tool among many that can help to save lives by fostering a faster, better prepared response in the first days and weeks of a new emergency.
  • Is not an end in itself. It is a record of decisions made during the planning process. It articulates important policy decisions and commitments with regard to future action, and therefore must involve senior decision makers with appropriate authority. Both the process and the product are important.
Building blocks of preparedness

Building blocks of preparedness

Summary of guidance and/or options

A contingency plan is required if: It is NOT required if:
  • The risk ranking exercise shows that risk is high.
  • It is possible to design a detailed scenario that includes: entry points, geographical areas affected, and realistic population estimates.
  • A mission has taken place to regions that are likely to be affected, and has identified key partners, local capacities and functioning response networks or mechanisms.
  • The scenario is predicted to require substantially more (or different) resources in the initial 3 months of an emergency, including establishment of new presences or partnerships in the affected areas.
  • The risk ranking exercise determines that risk is medium or low.
  • The quality of assessment information, capacity to analyse, and confidence in the likelihood of the risk scenario are medium or low.
  • The risk scenario is an escalation of a current emergency response (implying that partner agencies' roles are already established and coordination structures already exist).
  • First steps and commitments for immediate action under the scenario are already known and understood by those responsible.

When elaborating a scenario-based contingency plan, the following considerations are vital:

  • Be practical. Contingency planning should be practical. It should be based on realistic parameters. Abstract plans are likely to fail and may create a false sense of security.
  • Be flexible. Contingency planning starts with a scenario that should be sufficiently developed to permit specific planning and preparedness. A scenario should not be over-detailed. Plans should be flexible, recognizing that events will probably not match precisely the assumptions of the scenario.
  • Keep it simple. Contingency planning should be as simple as possible to do. It should not be a complex task for specialists only; all staff and partners should be able to participate. A realistic plan is one that can be implemented when needed.
  • Give attention to process. Consult and include. Though written plans are important, a contingency plan based on a poor process is likely to be ineffective, left in the filing cabinet.

Your contingency plan should answer ALL the following questions:

  • What is the current situation in the neighbouring country (potential source of influx) and what scenario will be used for contingency planning?
  • Does the scenario identify entry points and geographical areas affected, and realistically estimate the affected population?
  • What is the expected profile of the population (in terms of age and gender, disability, rural or urban composition, etc)?
  • What number of arrivals (per day/per week) would require substantially more (or different) resources in the initial three months of the response?
  • Organized according to sector, what expected needs will new arrivals have?
  • Organized according to sector, what priority response activities will cover the expected needs in each sector, who will coordinate each sector, who else will respond in each sector, what is the estimated budget of each sectoral response?
  • Is the current operation (all partners involved) ready to implement the activities identified in point 6?
  • If not, what priority preparedness actions need to be implemented? By whom? By when? What additional resources will be required for preparedness?

  • The response strategy of the contingency plan:
    • Refugee protection should be at the core of the response. Start with planning, advocacy and facilitating an open asylum space. The following points should be considered and addressed in the overall response strategy:
      • Access to territory.
      • Border monitoring.
      • Status determination.
      • Registration and documentation.
      • Freedom of movement.
      • Detention issues.
      • Adoption of an age, gender and diversity (AGD) approach in all assistance sectors.
      • Participatory assessment.
      • Community mobilization strategies.
      • A strategy for maintaining family unity.
      • Child protection.
      • The civilian character of asylum.
      • Monitoring, preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
      • Identifying and assisting persons with specific needs (PWSN).
    • The contingency plan should help national authorities to feel comfortable with allowing refugees to enter their territory, by offering UN and NGO support to manage the influx. To the extent that it is possible and appropriate, the response strategy should build on the existing capacity of national authorities, national systems and host communities to provide assistance services.
    • If a refugee operation is already present in the country, the strategy should consider adjusting its protection and assistance systems, enabling these to ‘switch' to the faster pace required of emergency operations. For example, could household replace individual registration, etc?
    • The protection response strategy must include a clear vision for rapid implementation of an emergency refugee registration system that is achievable and appropriate.
    • A refugee shelter and settlement strategy is also a key component of a protection response strategy. Shelter decisions are particularly hard to reverse. Camps should be considered an option of last resort; look first for alternatives to camps. Consider cultural and socio-economic factors, such as refugees' livelihood patterns. (Are they cattle herders, for instance?)
    • Assistance strategies for camp and non-camp settings differ fundamentally. In some contexts, the response strategy may need to be two-pronged.
    • Depending on the capacity of the host country (for example, available shelter options in the host community) and the pace of the influx, camps may be the only feasible operational option. Where this is so, appropriate locations need to be identified with the host government, as part of the response strategy. Before deciding on any camp location, it is essential to determine whether the site is fit for purpose and sustainable. Such decisions must be based on field assessments.

    How to implement this at field level?

    UNHCR will help governments to agree on a comprehensive refugee contingency plan with the involvement of key stakeholders. Partnership is central to a successful contingency planning process. From the outset, UNHCR planning should involve the host government, and UN and NGO partners in the country, including development actors.
    The UNHCR Representative at country level is responsible for initiating and leading timely inter-agency contingency planning. The Representative maintains a strong and constructive relationship with the Resident Coordinator and/or Humanitarian Coordinator, who should be kept informed of actions taken to prepare for a possible refugee influx.

    At country level
    Country level contingency planning is initiated by the UNHCR Representative, the regional office, or the UNHCR HQ Regional Bureau, depending on the situation.
    The best way to kick-start a contingency planning process is to facilitate an interagency workshop. This should aim to: create a shared understanding of the gravity of the risk scenario; mobilize support and firm response commitments (in the event that the scenario occurs); agree priority preparedness actions; and evaluate financial requirements for the initial response.

    TIP. Use the guiding tools in the standard template. It includes specific tables that could help do the exercises.

    At regional level
    When situations arise that may force refugees to displace to more than one country, operations should enhance their preparedness by coordinating their preparedness strategies with those of other affected countries. These may be consolidated and harmonized at regional level by a regional or situational preparedness support system. However, regional consolidation will always be secondary to the development of effective context-specific national and local preparedness plans.
    Each country in the affected region is likely to have different dynamics, including but not limited to: forms of government, operational partners, stances on the acceptance of potential refugees, and norms and levels of assistance that can be offered to arriving refugees.
    Where no appropriate regional structures exist, or the anticipated emergency is likely to cross regional boundaries, it may be advisable to constitute a light and dedicated-to-purpose system for coordinating national plans.
    Key aspects of preparedness that it may be useful to coordinate at regional level include:
    • Information sharing, to increase understanding of the risk of refugee outflows.
    • Coordination of key messages, including protection advocacy messages.
    • The prioritization of risks in the region.
    • An efficient international response to emergency logistics needs.
    • Normalization of preparedness planning for refugee outflows.
    Overview of the regional CP process

    Overview of the regional CP process

Main contacts

UNHCR HQ, Division for Emergency Security and Supply (DESS), at: [email protected]

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