Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - The hidden face of the refugee problem

Although its focus is on refugees, UNHCR has been involved in numerous operations on behalf of internally displaced persons since the early 1970s. Sadly, the humanitarian needs of the world's millions of internally displaced all too often fall into oblivion.

Although its focus is on refugees, UNHCR has been involved in numerous operations on behalf of internally displaced persons since the early 1970s. Sadly, the humanitarian needs of the world's millions of internally displaced all too often fall into oblivion.

By Jean-François Durieux
Chief, Promotion of Refugee Law Section,
UNHCR Division of International Protection

In 1972, when the civil war in Sudan came to an end, there were half a million displaced persons in the southern part of the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was given the responsibility of coordinating humanitarian efforts aimed at returning and resettling these displaced people within their own country. It was a relatively new experience for UNHCR, whose specific mandate is to protect and assist refugees - those who have crossed international borders - not the internally displaced. Since the early 1970s, UNHCR has been involved in numerous operations on behalf of internally displaced persons, who today actually outnumber the world's 15 million refugees. By 1996, the organization had been involved in almost 30 such IDP operations on several continents.

Since the beginning of this decade, the importance of UNHCR's role in support of displaced persons has reached unprecedented proportions.

We are all still haunted by the terrible images of children and elderly people shivering in the snows of the Kurd mountains of northern Iraq. In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqi offensive against the Kurdish populations in the north of the country had pushed 1 million people toward the Turkish border, which was hermetically closed to them. Only by dint of a considerable effort by the international community, coupled with UNHCR's expertise in coordinating aid, was it possible to avoid disaster and to work towards returning the displaced persons safely to their home villages.

Still, the most spectacular and best-known operation for displaced persons has been in ex-Yugoslavia, where UNHCR was lead agency for all U.N. humanitarian operations throughout 43 months of conflict, providing help and protection to nearly 4 million victims of war and persecution.

In the course of the last six years, UNHCR has also been called upon to help displaced persons in several other regions, among them Chechens, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks and Afghans.

Today, of the 27 million people presently under UNHCR responsibility worldwide, nearly 6 million are displaced persons. There is nothing very surprising about that. Like the refugees who are under UNHCR protection, displaced persons are the victims of armed conflict, discrimination or persecution. Some say they are refugees in all but name.

From a legal point of view, however, the fact that these victims have not crossed an international border is extremely significant. In fact, they do not enjoy the same rights as refugees, since the 1951 Convention on the status of refugees specifically defines refugees as "being outside their country of nationality (...) or of habitual residence." But above and beyond the strict legal definitions, the ability of international organizations like UNHCR to intervene is very much determined by the presence or not of a frontier between the displaced persons and the authorities of their home country. Sovereign states are often unwilling to allow the international community to intervene in problems affecting their own citizens within their national boundaries.

Moreover, the operational and practical difficulties involved in such intervention cannot be underestimated. By definition, working with internally displaced persons means working under dangerous conditions, often near or even in the middle of a combat zone - much closer, in any case, to the battlefield than would be any refugee camp.

In any armed conflict, and particularly those with ethnic or religious underpinnings, the humanitarian needs are immense - and the means to satisfy those needs within the conflict area are severely limited. This is why UNHCR must strongly emphasize that asylum beyond the borders, for those who manage to reach this haven, is a form of protection that so far has no equivalent inside territories devastated by war or persecution.

Internally displaced civilian populations move from one place to another, seeking safety and protection inside their own country. Sometimes they find a degree of security, but the price they invariably pay is that of being completely uprooted - of losing their homes, their jobs and their livelihoods. More often than not for these people, interior exile leads only to more suffering, insecurity, harassment and persecution. Increasingly, the displacement of civilian populations - under the guise of "ethnic cleansing" or some other pretext - is no longer a byproduct of war, but the very goal thereof.

And all too often, displaced persons are suspected of allegiance to an enemy clan or political group. Almost always they are caught in the crossfire and become pawns in a sordid bargaining game. They are forced by one side to give military service, and accused by the other of treason. In general, it is virtually impossible for these displaced persons to maintain any sort of "neutrality." They are caught in a no-win situation.

On top of all this, they face the problems of being uprooted, homeless and packed into areas with few resources - problems that UNHCR is all too familiar with in its work with refugees. In fact, UNHCR's experience in dealing with these very same types of problems on behalf of refugees has prepared it, over the years, to make a real contribution for the internally displaced in many countries, including Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Azerbaijan. But UNHCR's work on behalf of the internally displaced does nothing to diminish the equally important contributions of other international organizations, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross.

How does UNHCR approach the problem of internal displacement? Often, it is in the context of preparing for a refugee repatriation operation that UNHCR comes into contact with the plight of "displaced persons" who may already be living in the area of planned return. The attention paid to these displaced populations in the potential returnee settlement areas is of primary importance in ensuring lasting reintegration. When large numbers of refugees return to their country, it is often impossible and nearly always counterproductive and nearsighted to care only for them, while ignoring their nearby compatriots who were internally displaced for many of the same reasons.

The stabilizing, and hence preventive, effect of providing aid to displaced persons cannot be overlooked either. In former Yugoslavia, for example, the desire to prevent further population movements was a prime factor in UNHCR's intervention at the end of 1991, even before the armed conflict had spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

On the basis of its rich and varied experience, albeit perhaps not entirely coherent, UNHCR has tried in recent years to set criteria for its intervention in cases of internal displacement. The basic criterion, on which the Executive Committee and the U.N. General Assembly agree, refers to a "link" with a refugee situation. As it was formulated in 1993, by General Assembly Resolution 48/116, UNHCR's expertise can assist displaced persons "especially where [UNHCR's] efforts may contribute to the prevention or the solution of refugee problems."

Other criteria also apply. UNHCR is not authorized to act without the consent of the state concerned (and, if the situation arises, of one or several other parties to the conflict), and its involvement must be based on a request by the General Assembly or the Secretary-General of the United Nations, or even by the Security Council. UNHCR does not have a universal mandate with regard to displaced persons and for that reason, its scope for action is more limited than it is for refugees.

These criteria for UNHCR intervention are logical, and they have not been challenged. But they are also difficult to apply because other factors over which UNHCR has little or no control must also be taken into account. These include the safety of the operation and staff security, as well as limitations on UNHCR's human and financial resources in the face of pressing refugee needs and complex emergency situations elsewhere in the world.

Rwanda provides a good example. UNHCR did not seek to assume responsibility for around 1 million internally displaced Rwandans in mid-May 1994, as it was already overstreched trying to manage a phenomenal flow of refugees into neighbouring countries. Inside Rwanda itself, an inter-agency coordination team was hastily set up, with UNHCR playing a secondary role. It must be recognized that this coordination effort faltered at some point, incapable of preventing a horrendous massacre in the Kibeho camp for internally displaced persons in April 1995. Could UNHCR, alone or with others, have prevented this disaster? No one can honestly be certain. But it is clear that the "protection" aspect of the operation was the weak link of the aid programme for the displaced persons at Kibeho and elsewhere in southern Rwanda.

Then there is the case of Chechnya. The neighbouring republics of the Russian Federation - mainly Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Daghestan - are currently sheltering some 80,000 people who have been displaced by this merciless conflict. In these republics, is it possible to provide international aid while ignoring the blatant violations of the victims' rights? In principle, UNHCR refuses to do so, but it is subjected to heavy constraints. Apart from the difficulties raised by the "host" state, donor governments themselves have shown little interest in the prospect of a long-term humanitarian commitment which combines assistance, protection and the search for solutions.

The sad truth is that too many humanitarian emergencies involving the internally displaced fall into oblivion.

In the face of seemingly inexhaustible needs, the only real option is to bring fully into play international solidarity, as well as complementarity and coordination among the various international entities involved. The political will of states to act is key to this process.

In Russia, in Sudan, in Peru, in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, displaced persons all too often fall through the cracks of the humanitarian system - whether it be a matter of material aid or the protection of human rights. The Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Francis Deng, has rightly called for a general mobilization to help these often forgotten people. UNHCR and other organizations must contribute to this endeavour, each one providing its own expertise and resources.

The problem of displaced persons, which is but the reverse side of the refugee problem, is also its dark side. It is high time that it be exposed to the light of day.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)