Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Home is where the hurt is

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1996

There are an estimated 30 million internally displaced people in the world today double the number of refugees. In Latin America, for example, there are few refugees, but up to 3 million internally displaced in the region.

By Maria Stavropoulou (Schuppert)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the United Nations.

Being forced into flight totally disrupts the lives of the internally displaced, exactly as it does to refugees. But unlike many refugees, the world's millions of internally displaced persons often have nowhere to turn. They remain trapped in the same unsafe environment from which they tried to flee. In situations of internal strife, by definition, the civilian government functions partially or not at all; and the civilian population, victimized by a conflict which often has nothing to do with it, is ignored or treated with hostility by both sides.

A definition submitted to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights defines the internally displaced as "persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee their homes or places of habitual residence suddenly or unexpectedly as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border."

Today, there are an estimated 30 million internally displaced people in the world double the number of refugees. In many places, they are all but forgotten by the international community.

Although there are few refugees in Latin America, there are up to 3 million internally displaced persons in the region, including as many as 480,000 in Peru and 600,000 in Colombia. In both countries, a combination of political and socio-economic factors, such as excessively unequal income distribution, drug-trafficking and heavy involvement of the army in the political scene, have resulted in high levels of violence and a climate that fosters human rights abuses. Whether manifested as an ongoing conflict between the armed forces and the armed opposition (the case of Peru), or a constant armed struggle between rebel and paramilitary groups (the case of Colombia), violence has caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural peasants and indigenous people. The internally displaced often lead a very precarious existence, and they are highly appreciative of anyone who pays attention to their plight. This was very evident during a mission led by the Representative of the Secretary-General, Francis M. Deng, to visit displaced people in Peru. An international presence, even as brief as a visit of a couple of hours, can make a big difference. "I want to go with you to the army compound," Delia, a Peruvian woman, told us. "I want them to see that you have come here to listen to what we have to say. Next time I come alone, they' ll treat me better; at least they'll know I exist for someone."

Delia, of Peru's Ashaninka people, has been displaced for the past eight years. She lived with her family and her people in a settlement in the Peruvian selva (high-altitude jungle) until their forests were turned into a war zone by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Peruvian military. Delia was forced to abandon her home and walk down the river with the others from her village until they reached the provincial capital. She recounted how they lost everything in one night: homes, medicines, traditional food sources. Her own son disappeared, and she never heard from him again. She thinks he must have been taken by the Sendero.

Now, homeless and helpless, Delia and her people have to depend on the good will and charity of their remote relatives and of the occasional non-governmental organization. It has been a struggle for Delia, who has tried to obtain better education facilities for the children and to promote small handicrafts projects. And she tries to shield her community from the surrounding conflict by opposing any involvement with the armed opposition or with the rondas (a civil defense unit that fights against the Sendero). This neutral position, in the context of the conflict, is not a popular one with either side. To their way of thinking, one is either a rondero or a sendero; there is no middle road. In a conflict zone anything can happen to people like Delia, and she knows it.

Women have been the driving force in efforts to maintain some semblance of normal life in the Peruvian Andes. There, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Quechua-speakers, were displaced over the last 10 years. Husbands were "disappeared" or killed, and sons had to join the army or the insurgents. The women had to gather their children and flee to urban centres where they could melt into the poverty-stricken anonymity of a shantytown. Now they live in shacks with no water, no electricity and no sewage system. The children get little schooling and spend long days playing in the dirt. Poverty, disease and unemployment make life nearly intolerable. But displaced women have not been idle. They have organized soup kitchens, "mothers' clubs" and handicraft associations to support each other and improve living conditions. Irma, one of the women we talked with, thinks that soon she and her sisters will be able to go back home. "But we'd like our government and the world to give us a hand," she said.

Despite the many hardships, the Andean women of Peru are much better off than their displaced counterparts in Colombia. There, the cycle of violence shows no sign of being broken. "You have to realize," said a Catholic priest who works with the displaced, "that the real problem of the displaced is that they come from the wrong villages. In the minds of the army and the paramilitaries, their villages are 'red.' No matter who they were or what they did, they either had to join the paramilitary or leave or there was no guarantee they would see the light the next day. Those who have left are treated as guerrillas and hunted down, even in the big cities."

Millions face this same dilemma every day in the Andean region and in parts of Central America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Civilians are told either to join the "right" side -whether insurgents, paramilitaries, ethnic or religious minorities or majorities or to leave. No one is allowed to remain in their home in peace and security.

In Africa, the figures are staggering: up to 16 million people could be internally displaced. In a continent plagued by deadly and seemingly endless conflicts, the needs of the internally displaced are both urgent and immense. They present impossible demands upon humanitarian agencies, which have to make excruciating decisions on whom to help and whom to exclude. Such decisions are naturally based on the mandate of the agencies. UNHCR, for instance, does not have a general mandate to provide protection and assistance to the internally displaced, and can do so only under very specific circumstances. Inevitably, resources may not be sufficient to cover the needs of the internally displaced as well.

An estimated 500,000 of Burundi's 5.5 million people have been displaced. Some have crossed into neighbouring countries, but most remain inside Burundi, either clustered around military posts (if they are of the same Tutsi ethnicity as the military) or dispersed in the hills (if they are Hutus). Whether Tutsi or Hutu, they live in the memory of the massacres of the last few decades, and the constant fear of new outbreaks of genocidal attacks. Every day some of them are killed, and others die of malnutrition or malaria. Abuses against women range from seeing one's children or husband killed to being raped. A whole generation of children is being raised in a culture of revenge and hatred.

Human rights organizations have repeatedly called for an end to "impunity," a term that encapsulates the total absence of a functioning judicial system. Without such a system, the perpetrators of atrocities of either side are never brought to justice. Apart from the threat such persons pose continuously to society, the lack of accountability fosters the emergence of new perpetrators. Retaliatory killings occur every day in Burundi.

Next to the camps of the displaced in Burundi are camps housing Rwandan refugees. Where UNHCR, mandated to care for the refugees, is involved, the situation is marginally better; it is to this "margin" that many displaced people owe their lives and those of their children. For example, huts are arranged around cooking fires and are provided with plastic sheeting; medical facilities are available and the food distribution is organized. Disparities between the refugees and the internally displaced in the level of humanitarian assistance provided to them can spark conflicts that have a detrimental effect on overall security.

In the absence of UNHCR or some other international organization, local NGOs step in to help the internally displaced. In some countries, Sri Lanka for example, there is a tradition of a pluralistic and vigorous non-governmental sector. NGOs supply much-needed housing materials, emergency food and medicine and some protection. In a protracted conflict like Sri Lanka's where UNHCR does have an active presence the role of the NGO community can be vital to the internally displaced. Even though the assistance the NGOs can provide is dismally inadequate in comparison with the actual needs, in many cases it is the only available source of support.

During a mission to eastern Sri Lanka, we found a large settlement of displaced persons huddled around a church compound. A nun, Mother Fransisca, said there were perhaps 3,000 people there, all of them displaced by the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the government. "There is a long way to peace, and peace must be everyone's aim," Mother Fransisca said. "Human rights are forgotten ideals in these times and places and the displaced need everything."

Indeed. The displaced are often the forgotten victims of conflict and our brief presence with them would seem to us to contribute very little to easing their plight. But, as Delia said in far-off Peru, even if the world is doing little, at least someone knows they exist.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)