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Credit: WFP/Anthony Chase Lim

In major humanitarian crises, whether natural disasters or complex emergencies, many relief goods are delayed in customs. Sometimes they are only released after months, and other times they may never reach the affected population. This is because customs authorities are often not adequately prepared to process a large amount of relief items that arrive in the country within a very short period of time. For instance, after Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in November 2013, the country’s Bureau of Customs reported that the volume of cargo flights and ships was ten times larger than under normal circumstances. But a new initiative might help to handle the influx of relief items in an emergency.

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Already 35 years ago, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) developed an Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) for paperless customs management in order to assist customs administrations across the world to reform and modernize their procedures. The software is now used in more than 95 countries and helps customs officials to process incoming goods faster and more efficiently based on international norms and procedures, as defined in the Model Customs Facilitation Agreement. However, the ASYCUDA system was not designed to directly facilitate customs processing in humanitarian crises.

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By building on the success of ASYCUDA, and the fact that this system has already been established in many disaster and crisis-prone countries, OCHA and UNCTAD jointly explored how to upgrade the system in order to facilitate the processing of international relief in humanitarian emergencies. The collaboration resulted in the development of an additional module for the software, called Automated System for Customs Relief Emergency Consignments (ASYREC). After the development of the software prototype is finalised and tested in 2016, the new module will be integrated into the existing systems in those countries that already use ASYCUDA in subsequent years in order to automate the prioritisation and rapid processing of humanitarian relief consignments in humanitarian emergencies.

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In major disasters and humanitarian emergencies, the ASYREC module will be activated by the affected country in case there is a need for international assistance, or when special customs facilitation measures need to be put into place in an ongoing emergency.

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The new system will bring several advantages:

  • Relief consignments can be clearly indicated as “humanitarian relief” by sending agencies or donors, so that they can easily be recognized and prioritized by customs authorities;
  • Identified priority needs can be entered and recognized in the system during the disaster, to allow more rapid processing of those items by customs authorities;
  • In preparation for potential unforeseen emergencies, customs authorities can enter trustworthy humanitarian donors into the system, with the result that shipments from these agencies are processed with priority in a “green lane” in an emergency situation/context;
  • Different types of humanitarian relief items can be associated with national customs law by the affected country (e.g. exemption from import tax), enabling completely automated processing and release of these goods by customs authorities without delays;
  • This can also contribute to a more accurate overview of incoming relief for humanitarian response planning national authorities and international actors such as the Logistics Cluster in close cooperation with customs authorities.

Rolling out the new system

The development of the ASYREC software prototype has been completed in 2015 and is ready for testing and roll-out. In the course of 2016, UNCTAD and OCHA will select pilot countries to test the system and identify needs for improvement. Procedures and guidelines will be developed and tested in simulation exercises to ensure that national authorities and shipping agencies are comfortable with the system and are ready to use the module.

The project is managed in close cooperation between UNCTAD, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and OCHA in the Focus Task Force on “Improving the efficiency of dispatch of humanitarian assistance and customs processing”, established in 2015 under  the auspices of the Consultative Group for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The Focus Task Force will report on the progress of ASYREC at the next annual Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week, which will take place from 6 to 10 February 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland.

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