African Union set to adopt groundbreaking Convention on the internally displaced

News Stories, 22 October 2009

© UNHCR/J.Akena
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses delegates at the special African Union summit.

KAMPALA, Uganda, October 22 (UNHCR) The African Union (AU) opened a visionary summit meeting here today to address the festering problem of forced displacement on the African Continent.

In a keynote address to the Special Summit of Heads of State and Government on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni said, "No country should be allowed to disown its own people."

The attending African leaders are expected to sign on Friday a groundbreaking legal framework titled, "Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa." The new convention, if adopted, defines and emphasizes the responsibilities that states, and even armed groups, have to protect and assist their own uprooted citizens.

Beyond armed conflict, the convention covers major causes of displacement, including obligations that governments have toward their citizens fleeing natural and man-made disasters and people removed from their land when development projects take over. People forced to flee will find in the convention the full range of rights they should be entitled to before, during and after displacement.

"Everyone displaced by conflict or natural disaster is an individual. A person, likely a woman or a child, who may be undernourished and living in fear of recruitment or rape. A person whose potential remains unrealized, with dreams unfulfilled and contributions foregone. You have come together to forge a better future," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told the summit. "Once again, Africa is leading the way forward," added the High Commissioner, who was speaking on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Continuing in his capacity as High Commissioner, Guterres said, "Let us draw inspiration from those African leaders who have refused to accept perpetual displacement as an inevitable reality in their countries and have acted boldly to bring it to an end. Refugee status and internal displacement must not be an inheritance that is handed down from one generation to the next."

The convention will enter into force following ratification or accession by at least 15 AU member states. "The big challenge now will be to implement it," said Walter Kaelin, the UN Secretary-General's representative on the human rights of internally displaced people (IDP).

In his address to the summit, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes noted, "The true measure of the success of this summit and the convention will be when we start to see a reduction in the scale of displacement, and more effective solutions for those who have been displaced and above all an end to the enormous suffering that this has brought to so many people in this continent."

The phenomenon of internal displacement continues to expand on the African continent, even as refugee numbers progressively decline. At the beginning of this year, Africa was home to an estimated 11.6 million internally displaced people, or about 45 percent of the world's IDPs. The continent also has some 2,659,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. Some 2 million people were newly displaced during the course of last year.




Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

The port city of Aden in southern Yemen has long been a destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants after making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa. Since May 2011, Aden also has been providing shelter to tens of thousands of Yemenis fleeing fighting between government forces and armed groups in neighbouring Abyan governorate.

Most of the 157,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Abyan have found shelter with friends and relatives, but some 20,000 have been staying in dozens of public schools and eight vacant public buildings. Conditions are crowded with several families living together in a single classroom.

Many IDPs expected their displacement would not be for long. They wish to return home, but cannot do so due to the fighting. Moreover, some are fearful of reprisals if they return to areas where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged in bombings.

UNHCR has provided emergency assistance, including blankets, plastic sheeting and wood stoves, to almost 70,000 IDPs from Abyan. Earlier this year, UNHCR rehabilitated two buildings, providing shelter for 2,000 people and allowing 3,000 children, IDPs and locals, to resume schooling in proper classrooms. UNHCR is advocating with the authorities for the conversion of additional public buildings into transitional shelters for the thousands of IDPs still living in schools.

Photographer Pepe Rubio Larrauri travelled to Aden in March 2012 to document the day-to-day lives of the displaced.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen