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Overview Persons at Risk

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Key points
  • Do not assume that persons with specific needs are visible; actively identify them.
  • Consult persons with specific needs to assess their needs and capacities and identify shortcomings in protection and assistance programmes.
  • Consult persons with specific needs in order to decide what their food and non-food assistance packages should contain, and to make sure they can access distribution mechanisms.
  • Keep in mind that individuals and groups with specific needs are often the least likely to come forward to make their needs known.


In every emergency, some refugee or IDP groups or individuals face heightened protection risks because of their circumstances or the context. Those at higher risk include persons commonly known as ‘persons with specific needs'who face specific barriers due to discrimination, their identity, or other factors that prevent them fromfully enjoying their rights or accessing services they need.(See UNHCR, Guidance on the Use of Standardized Specific Needs Codes.)

The term ‘person with specific needs' is often used in UNHCR, but should be avoided to the extent that it has a disempowering connotation. It is important to note that not all persons categorized ashaving specific needs require specialized assistance. For example, persons with disabilities experience obstacles when they try to access their rights, but in many cases thechallenges they face are primarily due to social, cultural, physical, economic, or political discrimination.

In non-emergency situations, social services and community structures meet most of the needs of those at risk. In an emergency,however, many of these safety and support networks break down or even become a source of new risk. An emergency response can also overlook or fail to identify groups or individuals who need specific forms of protection.It is therefore vital to take steps to promptly identifyall groups and individuals at heightened risk, and providethem appropriate protection and assistance.

Individuals in the following categories are generally considered to be at heightened risk: girls and boys, including unaccompanied and separated children; persons with serious health conditions; persons with special legal or physical protection needs; single women; women-headed households;older persons; persons with disabilities;and persons of diversesex, sexual orientation or gender identity (LGBTI individuals).

It is important to remember that notevery individual in the above categories has specific needs. Moreover, their needs mayalter over time and will be influenced by the environment they are in. Rather than target ‘labelled' groups with a standard package of assistance, it is essential to understand how age, gender and diversity characteristics intersect in shaping individuals who are unique in their capacities, risks and needs. UNHCR staff should thereforeanalyse the protection and assistance risks that individuals and groups face and assess their needs by means of a targeted protection assessment, a needs assessment, or both.

It is also important not to limit the scope of protection and assistance to the above-mentioned groups. All persons should receive appropriate protection and assistance according to their needs, in consultation with the individuals and communities in question.

Main guidance

Protection objectives

  • To identify systematically individuals and groups at heightened risk at the start of an emergency and ensure their needs are regularly assessed using participatory approaches.
  • To set up mechanisms that quickly identify and refer persons at heightened risk, particularly those who are less visible to humanitarian actors, in cooperation with communities and their structures.
  • To design and implement protection responses and assistance programmes jointly with persons at heightened risk and their communities.
  • To prioritize individuals and groups at heightened risk,with the urgency required, inall protection and assistance responses (including reception, registration, refugee status determination, and resettlement).
  • To develop partnerships and referral mechanisms with other protection and assistance actors (including national partners) who have relevant expertise and adequate capacity to support groups and individuals at heightened risk.
  • To establish and maintain a confidential individual casemanagement system (using the proGres database) to register and track persons at heightened risk, and record the protection and assistance they require and receive. For more information on recording specific needs in proGres 4, please see Baseline SOP for the Registration Module.

Note. Operations should decide which specific needs they want to track, and how to record them most efficiently and safely in proGres. If an individual's specific needs are not recorded in the Specific Needs (SPN) entity of the Registration Module, or if a user does not have access to SPNs, he or she will not be able to consider these needs or prioritize individuals inSPNs.

For persons with specific needs who require individual case management, protection incidents and interventions can be recorded in the proGreslegal and physical protection module, the child protection module, or the SGBV module. Bear in mind that information recorded in the SGBV and child protection modules is not accessible to Registration, RSD, Resettlement orany other programmes that do not work on child protection or SGBV.

When deciding on access levels or where to record what, the operation should take into account, adopt the security design related to CP/SGBV and SPNs.

Aggregated information can be accessed on all individuals whose specific needs have been recordedvia reports generated from the database.


Underlying principles and standards

The policy reinforces UNHCR's commitment to ensure that people are at the centre of all what we do. It consolidates commitments to a strong AGD orientation, accountability to affected people (AAP) and to women and girls. It defines six areas of engagement and ten mandatory core actions for all UNHCR operations and headquarters.

Sets out key lessons learned from implementing community-based protection programmes. Advises UNHCR personnel and partners how to integrate community-based approaches to protection in their humanitarian work.

This manual argues that, if people of concern are putat the centre of operational decision-making and protection strategies are built in partnership with them, they will be better protected, and in a better position to identify, develop and sustain solutions, and resources will be used more effectively.


Protection Risks

  • If groups or individuals with specific needs are not identified early in an emergency, they may face heightened protection risks including discrimination, abuse, violence or stigma.
  • If mechanisms to identify persons at heightened risk are not effective, some individuals in need of specific protection may not be identified, particularly if their specific needs are not visible.
  • If protection and assistance gaps for groups or individuals with specific needs are not addressed early on, they may become more severe over time.
  • Communities play an essential role in identifying and supporting persons at heightened risk, including those with specific needs; they help to design and implement protection and assistance programmes. However, they can also sometimes be a negative force and the source of harm. Harmful traditional practices may (re-)emerge during displacement; marginalized and vulnerable groups may face more extreme exclusion or exploitation; power imbalances can be exacerbated, etc.
  • Systems that simplistically favour persons with specific needs may generate needs artificially and may create tensions in the community. For this reason, regularly review specific needs and their prioritization as the emergency context evolves.

Other risks

  • If specific needs are not identified and addressed promptly, the situation of persons of concern may deteriorate, causing further harm, loss of life, etc.
  • Late or ineffective responses may create security risks.
  • If UNHCR does not fulfil its protection responsibilities to particular groups, its credibility and authority may be damaged, and its mandate undermined.


Key decision points

  • Respond at once and adequately when specific needs are identified, and ensure day-to-day support is made available as required, including through community-based support mechanisms.
  • Make sure that persons with specific needs are identified and registered as early as possible.
  • Take steps to ensure that services and infrastructure are physically accessible to those with limited mobility.
  • Establish confidential referral systems to ensure that persons with specific needs have access to relevant service providers.
  • Put in place appropriate systems to prevent, mitigate and respond to violence (including SGBV), as well as exploitation and abuse.
  • Make sure that programmes include persons with specific needs. Ensure that persons with specific needs receive information about programmes that concern them through a variety of accessible communication channels.
  • Ensure that staff, partners and public authorities recognize and know how to respond to specific needs.
  • Particularly in non-camp settings, identify partners and establish an outreach programme to ensure that individuals with specificneeds are identified and informed of their entitlements.
  • Ensure feedback and response systems are in place and that persons with specific needs can access them, and act on feedback received.


Key steps

  • Take steps to ensure that groups with specific needs are fully informed of protection and assistance measures that they are entitled to access, notably distribution systems.
  • Identify groups or individuals with specific needs who require immediate attention. Prioritize unaccompanied and separated children, the sick and malnourished, and unaccompanied persons with disabilities. Also identify those whose needs require medium-term follow up.
  • Involve the community. Communities play a critical role in identifying and responding to the protection needs of persons with specific needs. This is especially so in areas that humanitarian workers cannot access.
  • Identify active community structures and community self-protection mechanisms and take steps to address negative coping mechanisms.
  • Identify and work with organizations of persons with disabilities, and other structures of groups with specific needs. Ensure they are included in broader community leadership structures.
  • Ensure that persons with urgent medical needs and chronic medical conditions are referred to health care providers for immediate treatment.
  • Take account of specific needs when you craft your communication messages. Children, and people who are sick, elderly, or have disabilities, will not necessarily obtain the informationthey need through everyday channels. Adapt your communication strategy to meet such needs.
  • Provide a ‘fast-track' queuing system for groups or individuals with specific needs, so that they can register and receive assistance and protection promptly. Prioritize them according to the gravity and urgency of their needs.In larger operations, you might ask a member of the reception team to monitor the reception area (and outside it) with the aim of pre-identifying and giving priority to persons with specific needs,.
  • Groups or individuals with specific needs should receive prompt protection and assistance: they should be prioritized at reception, registration, refugee status determination, and resettlement, and in other response mechanisms and processes.See chapter 5.1 of UNHCR'sGuidance on Registration and Identity Management on prioritization of persons with specific needs at registration.
  • Train reception and registration staff to identify and refer persons with specific needs as appropriate.For more information on identifying specific needs codes and making referrals, see UNHCR's Guidance on Registration and Identity Management, specifically chapter 5.2 on Registration as an Identity Management Process, and section 4 on identifying specific needs and referring concerned individuals according to SOPs.
  • It is a good idea to create a curated, shorter list of key specific needs codes that are most relevant and applicable to the situation, and to train staff to identify and record these codes rather than the whole list. Screening questions can also be provided to help staff with identification.
  • Enter details of persons with specific needs into proGres. (If pre-registration is paper-based, flag specific needs in the physical record.)
  • Ensure that UNHCR personnel who work in protection, child protection and community-based protectionare present at reception/registration facilities to assess immediately persons with specific needs who are referred by registration staff.
  • Establish and maintain up-to-date records in the proGres database. Establish a simple periodic reporting system (by generating reports from proGres). Focus on the needs identified, the services provided, and statistical data.
  • Jointly withaffected groups or individuals, as well as communities, establish mechanisms or processes to provide basic services, monitor their delivery, and implement follow-up actions.
  • Ensure that groups or individuals with specific needs are able to access assistancedistribution points and are not neglected in the delivery of goods and services.
  • If necessary, arrange separate queuing systems or deliver goods to persons who cannot attend distributions. Monitor the distribution of goods to groups or individuals with specific needs to ensure they do not suffer discrimination and are not exploited.
  • Remember that some groups may be subject to violence and abuse by other members of their community. If necessary, arrange for separate distribution and counselling hours.
  • If individuals are unable to collect assistance on their own, designate and recordan alternative collector.Monitor such casestomake sure the assistance reaches the individuals for whom it is intended.Consider community-based approaches.
  • Monitor the construction of shelter, water and sanitation facilities to ensure that theseare adapted to the needs of individuals with specific needs. When designing facilities, involve individuals with special needs.
  • Provide transport for individuals with physical disabilities, frail older persons, women in late pregnancy, and persons in severe psychologic aldistress who need transport to access medical and other services. Ensure that those who travel are accompanied by a responsible attendant (usually a relative) and that clear meeting pointsare identified to prevent separation from family members.
  • Take steps to make sure that interviews are not repeated unnecessarily. This can jeopardize confidentiality as well as increase the stress of those interviewed. To this end, ensure that case records are transferred whenever individuals with specific needs are moved.
  • Identify and strengthen local institutions that have facilities for care and treatment (clinics, schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, etc.).
  • Undertake participatory assessments with groups or individuals with specific needs and take account of their opinions in operational planning. Make sure they can attend meetings, or conduct home visits to gather their views. Diversify your participatory methods and adapt them to the needs of the different groups you target.
  • Where possible, provide vocational training and livelihood opportunities for those with specific needs, or their families, to help them to support themselves and find longer term solutions.


Key management considerations

  • Resources and sufficient staff need to be in place to meet specific needs.
  • Assess programmes regularly to ensure that age, gender and diversity (AGD) policies are implemented and that programmes are inclusive of all.
  • Establish a monitoring mechanism and monitor all key steps.
  • Establish a confidential feedback and response system and ensure it is accessible to persons with specific needs. The system should enable them to report protection concerns, including about sexual exploitation and abuse.
  • Establish national partnerships to ensure that programmes and support for persons and groups with specific needs can be sustained.
  • Implement community-based protection and work with communities (including host communities) to identify and respond to the needs of persons with specific needs.


Resources and partnerships


Key sectors include protection, community-based protection, and mental health and psychosocial support.

Financial resources

Should be sufficient to plan and implement necessary services, programmes, and interventions.


National NGOs and government institutions, including relevant ministries.


Learning and field practices

Main contacts

As first port of call, contact the UNHCR Deputy Representative (Protection), the UNHCR Assistant Representative (Protection), or the Senior Protection Officer orSenior Community-based Protection Officer in the country.

Alternatively, contact the UNHCR Head of Protection, or the Deputy Director (Protection), or the senior Protection Coordinator, or the senior Protection Officer, or the senior Community-based Protection Officer in the Regional Bureau.

The person you contact will liaise as required with the relevant technical unit at UNHCR DIP.

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