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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



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Frequently Asked Questions 

What is the difference between a refugees and displaced persons?

What is a complex humanitarian emergency or a complex emergency?

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

What health issues are most important to address during the early phase
of a complex emergency?

What are other important priority areas?

What major organizations work in this field?
How is malnutrition

What diseases commonly occur in camps and other densely populated areas?

Approximately, how many refugees or displaced people are in the world today?

What is it like to live in a refugee camp?

How can I learn more about a specific ethnic group or country?


What is the difference between refugees and a displaced persons?
  Refugees have fled their country and have crossed an international border recognized by the UN. Displaced people are often referred to as internally displaced persons (IDPs). 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 related to both refugees and IDPs.

What is a complex humanitarian emergency or a complex emergency?  
Both terms refer to a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or significant breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UN country program. Common characteristics include: 
civilian casualties, and populations besieged or displaced; serious political or conflict-related impediments to delivery of assistance; inability of people to pursue normal social, political or economic activities; high security risks for relief workers; and international and cross-border operations affected by political differences.

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

Refugees do have legal rights protected by international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention
defines the rights of refugees.The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the UN agency responsible for refugee protection.
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What health issues are most important to address during the early phase of  complex emergency?  
Communicable diseases cause the most illness and death in most humanitarian emergencies in less-developed countries. Children younger than 5 years of age are the most vulnerable.  The same communicable diseases that cause illness and death in stable populations are the most important in emergencies in less-developed countries: measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea.  As a result, the same treatment and prevention strategies recommended for stable populations are appropriate during emergencies.

What are other important priority areas during a complex emergency? 
Other priority areas include provision of adequate, safe water; food; shelter; and protection from violence.  In addition, organizations providing services to emergency-affected populations have begun to appreciate the importance of other health-related fields, such as mental health and reproductive health. 

What major organizations work in this field? 
UN agencies, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (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 the needs of emergency-affected populations. However, in many countries, resources are very scarce and the government cannot meet these needs.  For people fitting the international law definition of refugees, 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) often provides the large quantities of food to feed populations dependent on relief food.  UNICEF often provides essential care for children and their mothers, including vaccination, nutrition monitoring, and other maternal-child health services.  Nongovernmental organizations are often funded by donor countries or United Nations agencies to manage these services. 

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How is malnutrition measured?  
In most emergencies, children younger than 5 years of age are the most vulnerable to food shortage.  For this reason the weight and height of these children are measured to access the overall nutritional status of a population.  This does not mean that only children less than 5 years of age become malnourished; it only means that this part of the population manifests the effects of food shortage earlier than others.  Children selected for measurement are compared to a reference population in order to determine if they are too thin for their height.  Children who fall below certain standard cut-off points for thinness are considered acutely malnourished.  The proportion of all children who are measured who are malnourished is the prevalence of acute malnutrition, the major measure of the severity of malnutrition in a population.  In some emergencies, especially those in more developed countries, other parts of the population may become malnourished before young children.  For example, in emergencies in Eastern Europe and the countries of the ex-Soviet Union, elderly pensioners whose fixed incomes were substantially devalued as a result of rampant inflation often suffered the effects of malnutrition first. 

What diseases are most commonly seen in camps and other areas of high population density?
In addition to the usual causes of illness and death in emergency-affected populations in less-developed countries (measles, malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea), crowded settlements may be prone to outbreaks of cholera, meningitis, and other diseases which can be communicated rapidly.  Such outbreaks may be explosive and 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, which caused more than 40,000 deaths. 

Approximately, how many refugees or displaced people are in the world today?
In January 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that they cared for 20 million refugees and displaced people.  These persons lived all over the world.  The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimates that in 2001 there were about 15 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world.  This number has fallen only slightly since 1992, when there were more than 17 million refugees. 

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What is it like to live in a refugee camp?
Life in a refugee camp is very difficult.  For those residents used to working for wages at home, there is often no work available.  For farmers, there is often no land to grow crops.  Residents in camps are often almost entirely dependent on United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations for all their needs, including food, water, clothing, shelter, cooking utensils and fuel, etc.  Although most camps have markets, most families have no money with which to buy what little there is for sale.  The governments of the countries in which refugees have settled often impose restrictions on use of land to grow crops, ability to work for wages outside the camp, the types of animals refugees can keep, etc.  Although basic human needs may be mostly met, residents of camps often have little to do and suffer from boredom and dependency, which saps their self-esteem and feeling of worth.  Often normal family and cultural practices and values break down, leading to behavior which would not occur nor be tolerated in their normal place of residence.

How can I learn more about a specific group or country? 
Many organizations monitor the number and condition of refugees throughout the world. Probably the best sources of such information are the websites of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (, the U.S. Committee on Refugees ( and Relief Web (  The UNHCR website has a section containing teaching tools specific to refugees and their plight. The websites of many other organizations have detailed information on refugees; a quick web search should find a great deal of information on refugees and displaced persons anywhere in the world.

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