What is an emergency?

A humanitarian emergency is an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area.  An event or hazard can be naturally occurring or man-made.  It can come on rapidly (sudden-onset) or gradually (slow-onset).   A humanitarian emergency arises when such an event affects vulnerable populations who are unable to withstand the negative consequences by themselves. “Vulnerability” refers to a reduced capacity of individuals or groups to resist and recover from life-threatening hazards, and is most often connected to poverty. 

Types of emergencies

Emergencies can be grouped under the following headings:

  • Natural disasters, which can be geophysical (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions), hydrological (e.g. floods, avalanches), climatological (e.g. droughts), meteorological (e.g. storms, cyclones), or biological (e.g. epidemics, plagues).
  • Man-made emergencies, such as conflicts, plane and train crashes, fires and industrial accidents.
  • Complex emergencies, which often have a combination of natural and man-made elements, and different causes of vulnerability and a combination of factors leads to a humanitarian crisis. Examples include food insecurity, armed conflicts, and displaced populations.

Forced displacement

Emergencies cause temporary or permanent forced displacement.  Forced displacement is understood as migration in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or human-made causes.

Displaced populations include internally displaced people (people who remain in their own countries) as well as refugees and asylum seekers (people who cross international borders).  There are approximately 28 million forcibly displaced children worldwide; including approximately 10 million child refugees, 1 million asylum-seeker children and 17 million internally displaced  children (UNICEF, 2016). Forced displacement situations are becoming increasingly protracted.  At the end of 2014, more than half all refugees globally had been displaced for more than ten years (UNHCR, 2016).  Forcibly displaced children are being born and/or raised in displacement settings, where access to civil registration services is limited or non-existent.

Implement existing international standards on birth registration, including ensuring registration of children born during flight. Work to ensure the immediate birth registration for all refugee children born on the territory of the receiving country. Provide adequate assistance at the earliest opportunity to refugees in obtaining other necessary documents, as appropriate, relating to civil status, such as marriage, divorce and death certificates, and ensuring women and girls’, men and boys’ equal and independent ability to acquire civil documents.
— Making the Global Compact on Refugees Work for All Women and Girls Recommendation, September 2017